“Pandas have long been messengers of friendship between the Chinese and American people,” Xi continued. “We stand ready to continue our cooperation with the United States in the field of panda conservation and do our best to accommodate the wishes of Californians to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.”
The move follows a high-stakes meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden, who affirmed that the two men had made progress in their mission to repair the fractured relationship between the United States and China – even if fracture lines remain.
China lends pandas to zoos around the world through short-term exhibitions and longer-term scientific loans, and has long considered these beloved and iconic animals as part of its diplomatic strategies. “Panda diplomacy,” as it is known, has functioned as a soft power strategy to improve China’s image and increase goodwill toward Beijing around the world.
But in recent years, China has chosen not to renew existing panda loan agreements with U.S. zoos. At their peak, four cities had pandas: Memphis, San Diego, Washington and Atlanta. Now only the Atlanta pandas remain, and they too are expected to leave by 2024.
Xi’s remarks are likely to spark joy among panda admirers, many of whom recently flocked to the Smithsonian National Zoo in the weeks before their departure to celebrate the animal and get one last glimpse of it. Similar outbreaks occurred when pandas left the Memphis and San Diego zoos.