Pacific Dialogue
The panda in the room
By Liang Xiao  ·  2023-04-23  ·   Source: NO.17 APRIL 27, 2023

In this year's very first Pacific Dialogue column, we paid attention to the fate of Ya Ya and Le Le, the Chinese giant panda pair who had been living in the state of Tennessee in the Upper South of the eastern United States for 20 years at that point. On December 21, 2022, the Memphis Zoo announced it would be returning the pair to China once the zoo's two-decade leasing agreement with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) ended in April 2023. Unfortunately, Le Le, the 24-year-old male panda, did not make it home, passing away on February 1; Ya Ya, the 22-year-old female, has since returned home alone.

At the beginning of the year, the two pandas became a fixture on Chinese social media with videos and photos of them going viral—for all the wrong reasons. Based on pictures and footage, many netizens commented they thought the pair had been severely neglected during their stay at the Memphis Zoo. Interestingly enough, since 2020, several animal advocacy groups in the U.S. had already and repeatedly expressed their concerns that Le Le and Ya Ya were not being properly cared for and demanded they be sent back to China.

Compared with senior giant pandas living in China and other countries, Le Le appeared thin, while Ya Ya had lost patches of fur and looked older than her age. Soon, more and more people across China started believing these national treasures had indeed been neglected. 

Even when the CAZG organized a Sino-American team of professionals to jointly conduct multiple health assessments on the two big bears in January, concluding the animals were in medium health and showed no signs of abuse, the online "conspiracy theory" kept ballooning.

And when Le Le suddenly died, things took a turn for the worse. The Chinese and American experts who conducted the autopsy initially determined that he'd died of heart disease, but their statement paled in comparison with the trending online narrative. Chinese social media even saw petitions asking related organizations, such as the CAZG, to take Ya Ya home as soon as possible. And many netizens have further urged for all 11 giant pandas currently living in the U.S. to be returned home.

There are of course still plenty of Chinese people who believe pandas are widely loved by the American public and play a unique and irreplaceable role in nongovernmental exchanges between the two countries.

But against the background of Washington continuing its quest to contain China, a panda pair's conditions could easily trigger strong reactions among ordinary Chinese toward the black-and-white bears' American guardians.

These episodes of overly sentimental public outcry are not exclusive to China; they also happen in the U.S. Just think about the "wandering balloon" incident that happened in early February. The same day Le Le passed away, some American politicians and media began to hype the so-called "Chinese spy balloon" narrative and successfully stirred up a sense of panic and anti-China sentiment among the American public.

The Chinese side has always maintained this was a civilian airship used for meteorological research purposes, and it had entered U.S. airspace due to force majeure. But in the U.S., almost no one was willing to believe this statement, even if it did sound more reasonable.

Panda or balloon, here's the real problem: The U.S. and China are increasingly lacking in mutual trust. And this is not a positive sign. Rebuilding trust requires not only the efforts of the two countries' political elites but also requires ordinary citizens on both sides to look at each other from a more objective and rational perspective.

Neither the Chinese nor the Americans are the embodiment of evil. The Americans do not want to abuse pandas and the Chinese have no intention of spying the United States. BR


Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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