The Future is Bright, Maybe Not Only for Giant Pandas

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in China and arrived in the Smithsonian's National Zoo 23 years ago. Xiao Qi Ji was born at the zoo.


By Liu Kun, CGTN Radio Host and former Washington Bureau Chief of China Radio International

On November 8, Washington D. C. finally bids farewell to its three star ‘residents’, giant pandas Mei Xiang, 25, a female, Tian Tian, 26, a male and their 3-year-old son Xiao Qi Ji, as they boards a flight back to China.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were born in China and arrived in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo 23 years ago. Xiao Qi Ji was born at the zoo. Besides Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian also have three other older surviving cubs who are now in China.

On the farewell morning of November 8, everything goes as planned. It’s a long-anticipated and well-prepared moment, both for the American host and the Chinese homeland ready to welcome back the panda couple and their offspring. Tears, sad goodbyes and broken hearts are all expected. So are emotional speeches.

But still the remarks made by Brandie Smith come out as a little bit surprising. The director of the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute spoke highly of over 50-year cooperation between the U.S. and China on giant panda conservation.

Yes, over 50 years! Even older than the US-China diplomatic relations which will mark 45-year anniversary at the beginning of next year.

One Washington Post news piece reported that during giant pandas’ stay in Washington D.C., their images have appeared on buses, sneakers, shirts, mugs, scarves and hats. They have become “ubiquitous and iconic symbols alongside the White House and the Capitol”, nurturing in local communities and nationwide “legions of passionate followers”.

In her farewell speech, Director Smith of the National Zoo expresses gratitude to their Chinese partners for jointly making efforts in panda research and breeding. She hopes such cooperation would continue for another 50 years.

“Please know that the future is bright for giant pandas,” comments Ms. Smith. “We remain committed to our program and we look forward to celebrating with all of you when pandas can return to D.C.”

Over the past three or four years, it has become a rarity that high remarks were publicly made by Americans on cooperation with China, especially from Washington D. C.

Such a little bit tone turning remark on U.S.-China cooperation couldn’t have gone unnoticed.

And it seems to have not stood alone.

More than 7,400 miles away, in China’s biggest economic center Shanghai, American officials also speak out publicly advocating cooperation with China.

The city has been hosting the China International Import Expo from November 5 to 10 every year since 2018. This year, the United States sends its largest ever delegation. And as a first, the Americans have set up a pavilion to showcase their products.

Nicholas Burns, US ambassador to China, was in Shanghai at the opening of the expo. He was eager to point out that his country has the largest number of businesses and exhibitors, more than any other country.

Based on American statistics, US-China trade in goods recorded the highest level at about 690 billion US dollars in 2022. During a brief interaction with reporters at the American pavilion, Ambassador Burns repeated the official line of rhetoric that his government does not seek to decouple the economic relations with China and the policy is instead to “de-risk”. The US delegation, in his words, is in Shanghai “to show our commitment to the overall relationship between the United States and China”.

Against the once very tense relations between the world’s two largest economies, the US ambassador’s comments could be easily interpreted as an olive branch given to China, calling for a strategic (or tactical) pause in the tit-for-tat hostility so commonly seen in bilateral relations.   

And there are more.

Jason Hafemeister, acting deputy under-secretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, first came to China in 1996. It’s his first time at the Shanghai expo. When asked by a reporter from China Media Group—CCTV for considerations behind sending such a big delegation to the import expo, Hafemeister spills out a phrase that seldom used in recent years by American officials to describe US-China relations.

“It’s in our interest because it’s a good thing for our economy. They also help China as it provides good products with low prices. So it’s really a win-win situation that we want to promote. And our two countries have already benefitted from them. And they should continue to.”

Yes, the phrase is “a win-win situation”. It has long been promoted by China as an achievable goal for Sino-US relations. But normally it would meet dead air in the American side.

What drives the change of rhetoric from the American side?

The answers may vary dependent on where you stand.

If you are at the Shanghai import expo, the huge Chinese market full of potentials, the brisk business negotiations at the American pavilion and the promising sales for American Agro products have all point to an ultimate win-win result. It is reported that oilseeds and grains topped U.S. exports to China in 2022, accounting for 25.4 billion US dollars, far ahead of such goods as semiconductors. No wonder Chairman of the U.S. Grains Council Brent Boydston states that the mission for his China trip is to further deepen the partnership with the country.

If you are a panda enthusiast in Washington D.C. or other parts of the United States, the only place to go for a panda maniac would be in Atlanta. The city has four remaining and these four will be returning to China next year. The prospect of welcoming some new giant pandas might push for new cooperation between the US and China. 

Wherever you stand, everything seems to be connected, and for a reason. An endearing giant panda named Jinbao is the mascot and emblem of the Shanghai import expo.

So when the director of Smithsonian’s National Zoo states that the future

is bright for giant pandas, she may not talk about pandas only. Or at least that is what the world‘s panda loving population are hoping for, though they do understand the US and China would not agree on everything.

Liu Kun
Liu Kun
CGTN Radio Host and former Washington Bureau Chief of China Radio International


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