Celebrating the 50th anniversaries of "panda diplomacy" at the Smithsonian National Zoo and "ping-pong diplomacy" at the 2021 World Table Tennis Championship. [Images: Pandas/Smithsonian National Zoo; Table Tennis: Tim Warner / Getty Images]

Pandas and Ping-Pong: Celebrating 50 Years of US-China Exchange

China Asia

Pictured above: Giant Pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang eating a 50th anniversary cake at the Smithsonian National Zoo (left); Table tennis doubles partners Lin Gaoyuan of China and Lily Zhang of the United States at the 2021 World Table Tennis Championship.

On April 16, 2022, visitors to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC were treated to an extra dose of cuteness. The day marked 50 years of “panda diplomacy,” when the Zoo’s first giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived from China as a gift to mark President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China (China) in February 1972. Four days later, First Lady Patricia Nixon officially welcomed the pandas to the zoo. Their arrival touched off an abiding love for all things panda in the United States.

Following Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing’s deaths in the early 1990s, the National Zoo received its second pair of pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, in 2000 and who still live at the Zoo today. They are the parents of Tai Shan (male born in 2005), the first surviving panda cub born at the Zooand who returned to China in 2010 to help with breeding research in China; Bao Bao (female born in 2013), who returned to China in 2017; Bei Bei (male born in 2015 who returned to China in 2019; and Xiao Qi Ji (male), who gave everyone something to smile about when he was born during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. All these pandas have been stars of the popular “Giant Panda Cam” at the Zoo, drawing tourists from all over the United States and the world and raising awareness about giant pandas.

Since the beginning of “panda diplomacy,” the United States and China have worked closely together to study giant pandas and their habitats to preserve the species for future generations. Among the collaborations are the National Zoo’s ecologists and scientists from China’s Wildlife Conservation Association to identify forest corridors and restore bamboo plots to expand panda habitats in China; National Zoo and China Wildlife Disease Control Center veterinarians to study illnesses in pandas; reciprocal training courses to share best practices of caring for pandas in both captive and wild settings; and to streamline artificial insemination processes to ensure successful pregnancies in pandas.

Pandas are not the only source of celebration surrounding US-China relations this year. April 2022 also marked the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Table Tennis Team’s visit to the United States from April 12-30, 1972. The first visit of a delegation from China to the United States followed the US Table Tennis team’s visit to China in April 1971, which was the first visit of a US delegation to visit China since 1949. These reciprocal visits, known as “ping-pong diplomacy,” paved the way for further cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries. A prime example was during the November 2021 World Table Tennis Championship which had the first ever mixed doubles pairings where one athlete represented China and their teammate represented the United States. One of the pairings, America’s Lily Zhang and China’s Lin Gaoyuan, took home the bronze medal at the championship, a win for a bilateral relationship that had come so far in the 50 years since the American table tennis team had visited China.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary this year, the United States Table Tennis Association and All American Chinese Association held a series of events, including table tennis matches, in Los Angeles on March 21, 2022. Among the guests were Dell and Connie Sweeris, two USA Table Tennis Hall of Famers who traveled to China in 1971 as part of the historic US team. OnWorld Table Tennis Day, April 6, 2022, events were held around the world honoring the 50th anniversary of “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the United States and how table tennis can bring about connections across divides by uniting people in the shared love of the game under the theme “celebrating the power of peace.”

Throughout the celebrations for both historic milestones, the focus was on how important strong people-to-people connections have been and will continue to be in order to maintain positive relations between the United States and China.

Sarah Wang is a Programs Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.