Panda diplomacy is back: China sending two bears to Washington

Two-year-old giant panda Bao Li -- whose mother was born at Washington's National Zoo -- is one of two pandas being sent to the zoo by the end of 2024 (Roshan PATEL)
Two-year-old giant panda Bao Li -- whose mother was born at Washington's National Zoo -- is one of two pandas being sent to the zoo by the end of 2024 (Roshan PATEL)

China is to send giant pandas to Washington's National Zoo, US First Lady Jill Biden and officials said Wednesday, in a surprise announcement signaling a new era of panda diplomacy between the superpowers.

Bao Li and Qing Bao will arrive in the United States before the end of the year under a decade-long breeding and research agreement, the zoo said in a statement celebrating the return of animals "beloved around the nation and the world."

"We are excited for children near and far to once again enjoy the giant pandas' adorable and joyful adventures at our @NationalZoo," the first lady posted on X.

Amid soaring tensions between Washington and Beijing, only a handful of the iconic black and white bears remain in the United States, with three having left the National Zoo in Washington six months ago.

But President Xi Jinping said after meeting President Joe Biden at a summit in California last November that China could send new pandas as "envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American people."

The White House said it would be happy to have more of the bamboo-chewing mammals.

"We're thrilled to announce the next chapter of our breeding and conservation partnership begins by welcoming two new bears, including a descendent of our beloved panda family, to Washington DC," said Brandie Smith of the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

"This historic moment is proof positive our collaboration with Chinese colleagues has made an irrefutable impact."

China has been using so-called "panda diplomacy" since 1972, when the first animals were sent to the United States as a gift, following president Richard Nixon's historic visit to the Communist nation.

Strained relations between the rival superpowers in recent years have led Beijing to call some of the pandas back home.

- 'Treasure' -

All three giant pandas at Washington's zoo -- Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who arrived in 2000, and their three-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji ("Little Miracle" in English) -- flew back on a cargo plane to China last November.

The last remaining US-based pandas, at a zoo in the southern city of Atlanta, are due to return to China later this year, although the Asian giant announced plans in February to send a pair to the San Diego Zoo.

The Washington arrivals, both two years old, were born within a month of each other at a conservation center in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Both still live in the province, in separate facilities.

Bao Li -- a male whose name means "treasure" and "energetic" -- is something of a scion of a storied Washington family.

His mother Bao Bao was born at the capital's zoo in 2013, while his grandparents lived there from 2000 to 2023, where they served as ambassadors for their species.

"I believe he is... excited for the upcoming trip from his hometown in Sichuan to DC to see the place where his family lived and get to the know the friends here," China's US ambassador Xie Feng said at an announcement ceremony held by the zoo.

Like his grandparents, Bao Li's new roommate Qing Bao also demonstrated a talent for diplomacy, when she was chosen as the ambassador for the ninth UN World Wildlife Day at just one year old.

"Her name -- voted by Chinese netizens -- literally means 'a treasure in green mountains,'" Xie said. "From that alone, you can see how much we cherish nature and pandas."

The bears will be quarantined in their new habitat for at least 30 days, monitored by a team of keepers, nutritionists and veterinarians.

They will have a few more weeks to settle into their new home before a public debut at a date yet to be announced, the zoo said.

"After welcoming close to 26 million visitors last year, up 16 percent from the previous year, we can't wait to welcome two more," Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser posted on X.

"Bao Li and Qing Bao -- look forward to seeing you soon!"