Among news stories swirling around towards the end of 2019 about politics, climate change, and Brexit, the narrative of Bei Bei the panda emerged. Born in 2015, the now 240-pound panda drew stories of attachment and compassion as he departed to the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Chengdu. He later traveled to a branch of the Center, in Bifengxia.
Bei Bei is the third surviving cub to be born at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C., (in addition to Tai Shan and Bao Bao) and was given his name, meaning “precious treasure,” by the former First Lady Michelle Obama and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan. His return is part of a previous agreement between China and all foreign countries that host pandas in their zoos. Once the panda cubs turn 4, they must be returned to China in order to join the country’s breeding program.
So called “panda diplomacy” has been an underlying feature of U.S.-China relations since the 1970s, when two pandas, Hsing-Hsing, a male, and Ling-Ling, a female, were sent as gifts during President Nixon’s administration after first Lady Pat Nixon mentioned her fascination with giant pandas during a dinner with then Premier Zhou Enlai. From that moment on, China has leased pandas to a number of U.S. zoos; making the black and white bears a key positive feature in the bilateral relationship throughout the decades, despite the periods of tension in economic and political spheres.
The attachment to Bei Bei, expressed both by the zookeepers in person and the broader U.S. public through the hashtag #ByeByeBeiBei, exemplifies the subtle importance of “panda diplomacy,” the compassionate emotions that accompany a shared experience between the two nations. Bei Bei has become this generation’s new symbol of the quainter side of international diplomacy, creating a community of people from all over the world who are invested in his growth and journey. While bringing attention to the plight of the pandas as they combat extinction, the sharing of pandas between China and the U.S. highlights the countries’ capacity to sustain continued cooperation - an important lesson today as tensions in the relationship tend to garner more attention than collaboration.