How 'Panda Diplomacy' shaped US-China relations for a century

The world’s cutest diplomats! How ‘panda diplomacy’ has shaped US-China relations since the 1940s – and why New York might be set to receive the furry ambassadors for the FIRST TIME as President Xi lays on the charm

  • China has a decades-long history of leasing pandas to cooperative nations in a political move known as ‘panda diplomacy’ 
  • Pandas have been a little known diplomatic tool for generations, rising to historic prominence in moments such as President Nixon’s 1972 China trip  
  • After three were sent back to China this month, billionaire John Catsimatidis told he may broker a deal to bring more to New York City 

For generations, pandas have served as a little-known diplomatic tool for China to wield soft power on the world stage.

Since the 1940s, the beloved animals have been deployed by the CCP to test its good faith with America, with the deteriorating relationship between the rival nations in recent years resulting in the loss of all but four pandas across the US.  

Because the pandas are owned by China, the nation is able to lease and retract the fuzzy creatures at will – leading Washington DC’s beloved Tian Tian and Mei Xiang to be sent back to Asia on November 8 after two decades in the US. 

However, there are signs ‘panda diplomacy’ could take center stage again after President Biden welcomed his Chinese counterpart President Xi to a landmark meeting in San Francisco last week. 

According to New York billionaire John Catsimatidis, the meeting saw Xi react ‘positively’ to the idea of returning pandas to America. The founder of the Gristedes supermarket chain told he is hoping to bring them to the Big Apple in a multi-million-dollar tourism drive. 

Giant pandas Mei Xiang enjoy the snow at Washington DC’s Smithsonian National Zoo. The pair were gifted to the United States in 2000 but returned to China on November 8

Although ‘panda diplomacy’ in the modern age began in 1941, the first panda on US soil came five years before when socialite and fashion designer Ruth Harkness brought cub Sui-Lin to the US in her arms in 1936

The history of ‘panda diplomacy’ in the modern age dates back to 1941, when China sent a pair of the animals to America as a ‘thank you’ gift for its support against an invasion from Japan. 

The Bronx Zoo received the pandas on the eve of America’s decision to enter World War Two, in a sign of the international significance the animals would go on to take in the subsequent decades. 

Chinese dictator Chairman Mao was known to be a keen supporter of ‘panda diplomacy’ during the fifties, and would often send the bears as gifts to his communist allies in North Korea and the Soviet Union. 

The fractured relationship between America and China was marked by zero panda exchanges for over two decades until, in 1972, President Richard Nixon made a historic trip to Asia to mend the divide.

At a state banquet during the trip, First Lady Pat Nixon noticed a picture of pandas on a container of cigarettes, and remarked to Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai, ‘Aren’t they cute? I love them.’

‘I’ll give you some,’ he responded, gifting the United States with Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, a pair of 18-month-old black and whites. Their arrival sparked a media frenzy in the United States – often satirically remembered as America’s ‘panda-monium.’

Upwards of 75,000 people flooded to Washington DC National Zoo to welcome the pandas the first Sunday after they arrived on April 16, 1972.

It marked a dramatic shift from the ‘reds under the bed’ paranoia of 1958 when fierce opposition prevented Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo from accepting the arrival of pandas because they were deemed ‘a product of Communist China.’ 

First Lady Pat Nixon at a welcome ceremony in Washington DC’s National Zoo in April 1972, pictured with Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing 

The first lady laughs as one of the two pandas gifted from China wows the crowd on the first day the beloved animals were revealed to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1972 

The arrival of the pandas on April 16, 1972, where First Lady Pat Nixon is seen at the welcome ceremony, sparked a media frenzy and an economic boon often satirically remembered as America’s ‘panda-monium’ 

While America went mad for their newest attraction, Nixon’s counter-gift of two musk oxen – Milton and Mathilda, from the San Francisco Zoo – did not have the same reaction in China.

Both animals suffered health problems as soon as they arrived, and a New York Times editorial declared at the time: ‘One can only hope that a century from now “musk ox” will not be Chinese slang for a useless object that can’t be disposed of.’ 

‘We got a bad deal,’ added vice chairman of the Chinese government Madame Sun Yat-sen a few months later. ‘That’s Nixon for you.’ 

British Prime Minister Edward Heath was also so enamored by the economic boon of the pandas that he leased two bears for the London Zoo two years later.

While 1941 marked the first time China used the pandas for diplomacy, the first pandas to set foot on US soil came five years before, when socialite and fashion designer Ruth Harkness flew nine-week-old panda cub Sui Lin in her arms on the jet back instead of in a crate. 

Ruth Harkness carries baby panda cub Sui-Lin on a flight to the US, where it became the first panda brought to the United States 

In 1984, China changed its panda protocols to only send the animals out on 10-year leases, and the US would have to pay an annual fee of $1 million to keep the beloved bears. 

The US responded in 1998 by mandating 50 percent of the fee must go to conservation of the species – 10 years before a devastating earthquake destroyed 67 percent of all of China’s wild panda habitats. 

At the time in 2008, China had 60 pandas suddenly in need of safe habitats – leading to a fierce lobbying effort to obtain the animals that many linked to China’s trade deals. 

One such instance saw the UK receive its first pandas in 17 years in 2011 at the Edinburgh Zoo, shortly before an agreement was signed between the two nations for renewable energy tech, salmon, and Land Rovers. 

At the same time, Norway lost its salmon deal with China after it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Lui Xiaobo. 

The mystifying airline disaster of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, when 227 passengers and 12 crew disappeared, in 2014 also saw a return of panda diplomacy.

The disaster caused a rift between Malaysia and China, however it occurred just two months before the long-scheduled arrival of Feng Yi and Fu Wa – a move that was said to have brought a moment of relief in tensions between the two nations. 

President Bill Clinton at the Smithsonian National Zoo in 2001, shortly after the zoo received its second set of pandas from China 

Panda cub Xiao Qi Ji in the Smithsonian national Zoo three months after his birth in November 2020

Xiao Qi Ji eats an ice cake for his third birthday at the Smithsonian National Zoo on August 21, 2023 in Washington, DC

‘Panda diplomacy’ was the topic of a scathing Saturday Night Live sketch this month, where a character dressed as a panda mockingly answered questions on behalf of President Biden  

In 2000, Washington received its second pair of giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, in a 10-year deal reportedly costing $10 million. 

In 2013, China’s ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post where he declared: ‘Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.’ 

Saturday Night Live even used pandas to criticize Biden’s handling of foreign policy in a scathing Saturday Night Live sketch this month, where a character dressed as a panda to answer questions on behalf of the president. 

The move has not been without controversy, however, as some have claimed pandas suffer health effects in captivity and from long travel.

Chinese panda lovers accused the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC of ‘abusing’ Mei Xiang in 2020, with the elderly 22-year-old bear allegedly underfed and depressed. 

Twenty years after her arrival, Chinese social media platform Weibo became flooded by hundreds of millions of hashtags calling to ‘Save Mei Xiang’.

The bear was shipped back to China alongside Tian Tian and their sub Xiao Qi Ji on November 8, 2023. 

However, Washington’s pandas were not always hit by controversy – as Xiao Qi Ji went viral in 2022 after it was filmed playing in the snow for the very first time.

Giant Panda Mei Xiang licks up water while resting in her enclosure at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington before her transport to China on November 7, 2023 

Meghan Linden consoles her six-year-old daughter Harper as they read a sign about the panda’s relocation to China at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 2023

The pandas were shipped in specialized crates from Dulles International Airport on November 7, 2023 

The panda crates were filled with 220lbs of bamboo and plenty of apples for their long voyage 

When Washington surrendered its last pandas earlier this month, many saw it as a symbolic moment to show how US-China relations have deteriorated. 

However, Biden’s historic welcome of Xi in San Francisco last week led to the possibility that pandas could soon arrive in New York City. 

At the summit, Xi branded pandas ‘envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.’

And billionaire John Catsimatidis told in response that he is attempting to broker a deal to loan pandas to the Big Apple in a tourism drive because ‘the city really needs it.’

Looking back at the ‘panda-monium’ brought on by the animals’ arrival in decades past, Catsimatidis claimed that they could ‘rival the Statue of Liberty’ as a New York City landmark and bring tens of millions of dollars in tourism money. 

The Gristedes founder and radio host, 75, told that the move also shows a ‘desire to have peace in the world’ between the United States and China, in a deal that he dubbed ‘peace through pandas’. 

Although he didn’t commit to a timeline for when the pandas may be on American soil, Catsimatidis said he would ‘love for it to be a part’ of the nation’s celebration of its 250th anniversary – which lands on July 4th, 2026. 

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