Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Good Riddance, Pandas

Panda diplomacy was always a mirage, at best.


I live about ten minutes away from the Smithsonian National Zoo, and I don’t think that in all the times I have been there I’ve ever seen a single panda. Oh, sure, I’ve seen their enclosure; it’s essentially a ground-level Metro station—all concrete and glass, decorated with a few sprigs of bamboo to suggest the abstraction Panda—but never have I glimpsed the creatures which Barack Obama once claimed “dazzle” the children of America.

Not that it matters anymore. Last week, in the middle of the night, zoo employees drugged the three pandas on loan from China, packed them in FedEx trucks, and shipped them back to the People’s Republic. Some have compared their departure to that fateful night in 1984 when the Baltimore Colts picked up their helmets and pads and fled for Indianapolis. But I think the more appropriate analogy is the O.J. Simpson chase. The morning of Nov. 7, every news helicopter in the Washington area followed those FedEx trucks as they trundled with a police escort down to Dulles Airport. 


The coverage was breathless, and for native Washingtonians, it was impossible to look away. We have panda statues all over this town; we slap their faces on t-shirts and birthday cakes. Somewhere along the way, it seems, we forgot that they didn’t really belong to us. Their departure was fittingly billed as a catastrophe in slow motion, the instantiation of a tearing in relations between two great powers. 

Of course, this is always how it was going to end. Panda diplomacy, the term of art for the manner in which China loans out its national ursids, makes sense only when a weaker power must grovel before a stronger one. The origins of the arrangement are instructive. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, his wife Pat went to the Peking Zoo specifically to see the pandas. Later, at a state dinner, she was seated next to the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, and she noticed on the table a box of cigarettes wrapped in pink tissue and decorated with pandas.

“Aren’t they cute?” she said. “I love them.”

Zhou, that crafty revolutionary, who even then was fighting for his survival in the Cultural Revolution, did not miss the easy opportunity to score points with the American president’s wife: “I’ll give you some,” he said, and arrangements were made. 

Two months later, the pandas arrived as promised in D.C., and Pat Nixon tootled up Connecticut Ave. to dedicate their new enclosure. The scene was one that only could have occurred in mid-century, pre-Watergate Washington. It was a gray day, as colorless as the overweight, sloppily dressed bureaucrats rolled out for the occasion. Speeches were made, vague gestures at international brotherhood and scientific progress. Pat Nixon laughed her way through the proceedings. Her hair looked like a cream puff. 


There was one incongruity: the Chinese diplomats sent to present the bears. These were stern men with drawn faces in high-collared work shirts, who had very likely committed horrible crimes to survive party purges and fought off dozens of other contenders to be sent on this delegation. When they spoke, they did not smile.

I’m not sure panda diplomacy ever developed beyond that moment. Pat Nixon declared, in an oft-repeated line among Smithsonian National Zoo devotees, that she believed “panda-monium” would break out among the children in D.C. (she counted herself one of these). And the Chinese delegation took her at her word: The pandas were for children, and could be taken away as soon as the children misbehave.

Hence their departure. I’m sure someone with expert knowledge in foreign policy could outline the exact ways in which the end of panda diplomacy aligns with worsening relations between the United States and China, but for most people it just looks like punishment inflicted on the panda-lovers of our country. 

For my own part, I say good riddance. The pandas were burdensome creatures: always sick, or asleep, or away in the lab for an ill-fated attempt at artificial insemination. Dealing with them was a lot like our relationship with China: The experience has left both sides wondering if it is really worth the trouble—at least on the current terms. And I find it unsurprising that in 25 years of living around Washington, D.C., I never once saw them. The pandas proved as elusive as their diplomacy.