Pacific Dialogue
Panda pandemonium
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-01-03  ·   Source: NO.1 JANUARY 5, 2023

In the last 10 days of 2022, American and Chinese animal lovers were glued to the news coming in about two giant pandas in Memphis, Tennessee, the U.S. According to a statement from the Memphis Zoo on December 21, Ya Ya, 22, a female panda, and her male companion Le Le, 24, will be returning to China within the next few months due to the expiration of a 20-year loan agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.

But the announcement came after months of criticism by In Defense of Animals and other animal advocacy groups that have accused the zoo of providing inadequate care to the pandas. Critics called on the zoo to get them better food, more uncaged time and ultimately a transfer to a panda refuge.

Since early 2020, netizens from East to West have been posting videos and pictures on social media showing the pair in visible distress and malnourished. Many also expressed their belief that due to their mistreatment, Ya Ya had developed a chronic skin condition and Le Le had been suffering from significant teeth issues, among other unpleasant ailments.

More than 110,000 people worldwide, including world-famous American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish, have signed a petition to express their deep concern for the pair's welfare.

A spokesperson for the Memphis Zoo denied the decision to return the pandas to China came under pressure from animal advocates and added Ya Ya and Le Le had already exceeded the giant panda's life expectancy in the wild by almost 10 years, suggesting their seemingly bad condition was due to age rather than poor care. Plus, China requires foreign zoos that host pandas on loan to allow older animals to spend their final days on Chinese soil.

All in all, many Chinese netizens found the zoo's explanation hard to believe given the average life expectancy of giant pandas in captivity ranges between 25 and 35 years. Some even wrote that the alleged suffering of the panda pair was a concrete manifestation of American hostility towards China.

But these arguments are irrational. Currently, 12 Chinese giant pandas reside in the U.S., accounting for about one fifth of the total number of giant pandas living overseas. Ever since China presented a pair of giant pandas to the U.S. following President Richard Nixon's historic China visit in 1972, pandas have been regarded as special Chinese ambassadors and have played a unique and irreplaceable role in nongovernmental exchanges between the two countries. The animals have also been embraced by the Americans, with many local Memphis media outlets reporting on how numerous residents were upset and hoping to say goodbye to the pandas before they return home.

As a wild animal endemic to China, the Chinese consider the giant panda a national treasure, protecting it at the highest level domestically. And as a symbol of their country on the global stage, people want to see the animal be loved and treated well. For example, during the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, the emirate's new giant panda pair, Suhail (Jing Jing) and Thuraya (Si Hai), gained as much traction on Chinese social media as did Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to its third World Cup title.

This panda pandemonium could serve as a useful reference for those U.S. elites committed to improving bilateral ties. The Chinese can be a complex bunch. On the one hand, they are pragmatic, as illustrated by the following famous quote from Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who pushed the country to reform itself and open up in the late 1970s: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." On the other hand, Chinese people are sensitive. As soon as someone shows an interest in their country's culture, whether it be food or the giant panda, it becomes easy to capture their heart.

As the ancient Chinese saying goes, "Amity between people holds the key to sound state-to-state relations." At this sensitive stage when Sino-U.S. relations are at a low ebb, even though the leaders of both sides continue to express their willingness to improve the bilateral relationship, more attention must go to those details that can positively affect public sentiment, regardless of whether that public is Chinese or American. 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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