Smithsonian's National Zoo keepers measure the 10-week-old Bao Bao. Image: Tim Flach/Smithsonian Magazine

Pandas Continue to Embody the Soft Side of US-China Ties


During President Xi’s recent visit to Seattle, about a third of the Washington state legislature signed a letter asking the Chinese president to consider loaning the state some pandas. About a month before that, a new panda baby was born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, sparking another round of “panda-monium” in the nation’s capital and across the country.

The tradition of the US receiving pandas from China started in 1936 when a giant panda named Su Lin landed in New York City, becoming the first panda that survived a trip outside of East Asia. After a decades-long ban on pandas due to the Cold War, a pair of giant pandas named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were given to the United States during Nixon’s historic visit to People’s Republic of China in 1972 that led to normalized relations between the two countries. Pandas then became the symbol of US-China friendship, and now zoos in Atlanta, Memphis, San Diego, and Washington, DC have pandas on loan from China.

Each zoo in the US exhibiting pandas is required to pay $1 million per year for a minimum 10-year commitment. The money goes toward panda conservation in China. At zoos that host the pandas in America, attendance and revenues tend to go up as a result. In 2000 – the first full year it had pandas – the Atlanta zoo broke attendance records, drawing more than 1 million visitors. For the National Zoo in Washington, where admission is free, zoo membership shot up 18% in late 2013 on a promise of special access to the newly-born Bao Bao. Pandas also bring people’s attention to conservation. One single fundraising event of the National Zoo in 2014, where tickets for a special Bao Bao tour sold for $6000, raised about $300,000. The funds raised all went directly to animal care, science, training and education.

Around the world, there are about 300 pandas in captivity, and 1,600 remaining in the wild. American scientists have conducted collaborative research with the Chinese on artificial insemination and reproduction to save the endangered species beloved by the people from both countries. Scientists, such as Dr. Kersey from the Western University of Health Sciences and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, have trained Chinese colleagues at major breeding facilities in China and set up endocrinology labs at Chinese panda research bases.

As an important “emotional link” between the Chinese and American people, cities across the US are understandably eager to welcome the adorable creatures to their communities.

Zhonghe Zhu is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University.