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Keep Your Stupid Pandas – The American Conservative

It was with a sense of bitter vindication that I received the news of the pandas’ return to Washington, DC. When the Chinese government carted them away last November, I wrote in these pages that “panda diplomacy” has never been a beneficial policy for the United States. Now that they are coming back, it is all the more obvious.

The problem isn’t the pandas themselves (though I should not conceal my personal distaste for the lazy brutes). The problem is that our agreement with China in this matter is completely one-sided. The Chinese “give” us the pandas with a whole host of stipulations and fine print, and then, when the spirit moves them—usually when our regime gets in a tiff with their regime—they yank the pandas away. The result is always the same: an outpouring of public sentiment and an embarrassing show of institutional begging for pandas, more pandas.

And the cycle has begun again. Just six months after the National Zoo shipped Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji, (how many people ever learned those names?) back to China in a FedEx box, it announced that two more black-and-white ursids are inbound. These newcomers, Bao Li and Qing Bao, are set to be in DC through 2034. Any cubs they produce will be shoved into a crate and sent back to the home country. And the zoo, in addition to the usual care and maintenance that comes with displaying a representative of an endangered species, will pay a $1 million annual fee to the Chinese government for the privilege. 

This arrangement is not unique to the National Zoo, although it was the first place in the United States to host pandas. The Memphis Zoo and the San Diego Zoo had them too, for a time, until the Chinese decided that those cities weren’t worthy. (One did die on Memphis’s watch, in fairness.) Atlanta still has its pandas, but not for long: They are scheduled to go away at the end of this year. Every time this happens, it’s a national event, accompanied by goodbye ceremonies, hours of television coverage, and the usual fretting about whether or not we’ll ever get pandas again. We may, we may not; it all depends on Chinese whim.

Panda diplomacy is brilliant for the Chinese. There are only about 1,800 pandas left in the world, and China has a monopoly on their existence (The fact that pandas can barely reproduce without human intervention means that this will probably always be the case.) And their scarcity makes them valuable to sentimental, animal-loving people the world over. As of 2022, 22 zoos in 18 countries had pandas, and they were a hit in each one. This has got to be one of lowest-effort, highest-reward soft-power plays on offer.

Anyway, it’s not as if the pandas mean much to the powers that be in China. Just earlier this year, the regime received criticism from panda-watch organizations for its treatment of repatriated bears. Viral videos on Chinese social media showed people poking at them through their cages inside an airport and touching them in their enclosures. A livestream of one panda, particularly beloved when it was on loan in South Korea, revealed a mess of mangy fur, leading many people to suspect that it was sick and not receiving care. None of this should be too surprising: The pandas are diplomatic tools like any other, and when they are not in use, there is no reason to look after them. And there is no reason why Americans should participate in this game. Everything must end, and some things are better left in the past. 

If the National Zoo really wanted a lasting panda exhibition, it would throw open the doors of the empty concrete and glass enclosure to the public. In time, the place would fall to waste and accumulate the overwhelming power that only ruins can command. The memory of the panda would become more intoxicating than its presence. Soon, as we picked through the remains, we would come to regard the panda as we do the dinosaur: a strange, fantastic beast impossibly beyond our comprehension. 

I know that will never happen. But the thought beats the reality: $1 million per annum to watch an impotent bear chew on a stick. 

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