Amid U.S./China ‘decoupling’ talk, China is recalling pandas from American zoos.


Since 1972, giant pandas have been the stars of American zoos, but unless things change dramatically in the coming months, the popular black and white rotund bears will no longer be at any American zoo as China rescinds its loans of the animals.
The National Zoo has announced its three giant pandas—Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao QI Ji—will head back to China in early December after attempts to renew the three-year contract failed. The Memphis Zoo has already returned Ya Ya, the panda that has spent the last 20 years in Tennessee. So has the San Diego Zoo.
The Atlanta Zoo’s four pandas could be the last place for people to see the bears, but they’re expected to return to China sometime in 2024.
The recall of panda bears comes as relations between the U.S. and China become increasingly frayed.
Tensions started to heighten during the Trump administration, when sanctions were added to many Chinese-made products, but relations have increasingly deteriorated. Washington has attempted to deprive China of cutting-edge computer chips, citing national security concerns. That’s increasing talk of a decoupling of the two nations, which could have severe economic impacts for both—and the world. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned in April that “a full separation of our economies would be disastrous for both countries.” It may also be disastrous for zoo-going panda fans.
The Biden White House has insisted plans to limit U.S. investment in Chinese semiconductors and access restrictions are a “de-risking,” rather than decoupling, a term that has not eased concerns.
Panda diplomacy
Pandas were first loaned to the National Zoo in the Nixon administration, when formalized national relations between the two countries were formed. For decades, China has loaned pandas to countries it hoped to build ties with, a policy referred to as “panda diplomacy.”
Now, however, it’s rescinding them, not only from the U.S. but also from zoos in Scotland.
Pandas are native to China, and zoos that host them are never given full custody. Instead, they “rent” them, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to China each year. Long a member of the endangered species list, pandas are no longer considered at severe risk and were downgraded to “vulnerable” to the threat of extinction in 2021. The National Zoo estimates there are about 1,864 pandas living in the wild in China.
This wouldn’t be the first time China has left zoos without a panda. In 1999, the National Zoo went for about a year without a panda exhibit. And, should President Joe Biden meet face-to-face with China President Xi Jinping, which could happen during November’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in San Francisco, who knows if the widespread recall of the loaned pandas could be recalled itself.


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