One of the highlights of any family’s tour of Washington is seeing Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the pandas at the National Zoo. But unlike other animals there, the pandas aren’t owned by the zoo. Here’s the story of cute pandas and China’s hard-nosed “panda diplomacy.”
Following President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, China’s leader Mao Zedong gave the US two giant pandas in recognition of growing diplomatic relationship between the two countries. In 1984 China decided that pandas would no longer be gifts, rather they would be leased.
The original pandas were much beloved and became the main attraction at the zoo until their deaths. Because Americans had become so enamored with the lumbering bears, the zoo naturally wanted replacements. To get them the National Zoo’s had to sign a lease for $500,000 a year per panda (with unlimited milage) plus an agreement that any cubs born during that time will be returned to China when they turn four.
Panda diplomacy is an excellent example of “soft power,” measures nations can use to get what they want without coercive methods. For example, Finland was able to leases pandas only after it agreed to a one-China (non-recognition of Taiwan) policy.
Extending the leases on Mei Xiang and Tian Tian may depend on the state of US-China relations. So, if you want to see these adorable bears, make sure you visit the zoo before 2023 when their lease is up, and they have to be returned to the dealer.