Light Wave


U.S. zoos wave pandas bye-bye as China ties tank

By CM Chaney · September 30, 2023

In brief…

  • After 50+ years, DC's iconic pandas are set to return to China as its panda loan expires.
  • Other U.S. zoos will also be forced to remit their panda bears to China over the coming year.
  • The return takes place amid historic tensions between the US and China, signaling a drift between the two superpowers.
  • Past panda loans have correlated with strategic trade deals between China and other nations.
  • China has employed what's referred to as "panda diplomacy" for decades.
China is recalliing its prized panda bears from American zoos as relations between the two superpowers go south.  Asiir at English Wikipedia/Wikimedia

The iconic giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. are set to return to China by December, marking the end of more than 50 years of panda diplomacy between the two nations. Zoos in Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis will also be forced to remit the highly popular bears to China within the next year.

The panda clawbacks come amid rising political and economic tensions between the world’s two reigning superpowers.

“There’s significance that all of the pandas in the United States will be back in China by next year,” “Panda Nation” author Elena Songster told Bloomberg. “They have a plan.”

Zoos rent rather than own pandas, paying China hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual fees. After years of renewals, China informed the Smithsonian it would not re-up its contract. Earlier this year, Memphis was ordered to return its panda, Ya Ya, after accusations of mistreatment, despite the U.S. and China both calling it healthy.

A novel 2013 study found a correlation between uranium trade deals and panda loans between China and Canada and France.

“From goodwill gestures, they’ve evolved into emblems of distrust,” Asia Society Policy Institute scholar Lizzi C. Lee told Bloomberg. “Pandas have become canvases for narratives of rivalry.”

China has strategically used “panda diplomacy” for decades, rewarding friends and punishing adversaries. China’s panda recall from the U.S. underscores how far the superpowers have drifted apart.