Tales from the Trail

Panda diplomacy: the remix

January 20, 2011

USAThe latest chapter in the long story of panda diplomacy was written at Washington’s National Zoo, where the Chinese government agreed to lengthen the “loan” of popular panda pair Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for another five years. Actually, the loan is conditioned on whether they produce a new heir or heiress to the cuteness of panda-dom in the next two years;  one or both could be exchanged for more fecund substitutes.

They have a good track record: Washington native Tai Shan, born in 2005, headed back to China last year.

This was a big enough deal for President Barack Obama to mention it at an elaborate state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

“Today, we’ve shown that our governments can work together, as well, for our mutual benefit,” Obama told the glittering gathering. “And that includes this bit of news: Under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas.”

PANDAIn the United States, panda diplomacy started soon after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. But the idea that China might be able to export, or at least loan, this cuddly symbol to further diplomatic ends may date back to the Tang Dynasty, when 7th century Chinese Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to Japan.

For some reason, Washington has gone disproportionately gaga over pandas. In 2004, the PandaMania exhibition put fancifully painted panda sculptures around town; there’s still one near the hotel where the Chinese government set up its press operations for President Hu Jintao’s visit. Asked why people in the United States are so smitten, Chinese conservation official Zhang Shanming told reporters it just might be that, when pandas sit on their hind quarters, eating, they look like human babies.

To be honest, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang didn’t look so much like babies in that distinctive pose; they looked more like furry beanbags as the big deal was unveiled. But pandas are pandas and Washingtonians are likely to continue the love affair with them.

Photo credits: REUTERS/Jason Reed (Giant panda Tai Shan at the National Zoo in Washington, December 4, 2009)

REUTERS/Larry Downing (Tian Tian chews on a bamboo treat behind “Red Pandragon,” one of 15 painted panda bear sculptures unveiled at the National Zoo in Washington, May 10, 2004)

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