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The giant panda Yaya was loaned by China to the United States in 2003. The way his return to the country is going is indicative of the current tensions between the United States and China.
Yaya arrived in Shanghai on Thursday April 27, after 16 hours on the plane and 20 years in the United States. She was greeted by masked scientists, in white coveralls, handful of fresh bamboo in their hands. Yaya was loaned to the Memphis Zoo in 2003 at a time when relations between China and the United States were much better than they are today. The files which divide, oppose Beijing and Washington accumulate at the moment. The war in Ukraine, the status of Taiwan being just a few examples. And now, in the middle of all this, Yaya’s adventures took a funny turn.
A emaciated panda, suspicions of abuse
Because at 22, in her zoo in Memphis, old Yaya was not in great shape. Skinny, a little peeling. Chinese Internet users are worried: what if the United States mistreats its national treasure? « Yaya is the most spoiled animal in the world“, then defends the director of the zoo. It gets a little more complicated when Yaya’s companion, also on loan from China, dies of a heart attack in February. found several times in « strong trend » on Weibo, the Chinese social network, each time with hundreds of millions of views.
At the same time, other videos appear on Chinese social networks: images of healthy pandas in a Russian zoo. Plump, players, fans of roulades. From there to say that the Americans treat pandas badly because they don’t like China, and that the Russians are very caring because they are friends of the Chinese, there is only a step that Internet users relayed by the Chinese media are gladly taking. Veterinarians from China may say that Yaya actually has a genetic disease, a skin disease, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs may assure that Americans « we love you » Yaya, this does not remove doubts.
The “panda diplomacy” criticized
The principle of panda diplomacy is even criticized. This Chinese tradition dates back to the 1940s, if we only take the contemporary period. The panda as a sweet and cute ambassador, a tool of soft power, a gift on the sidelines of trade agreements, an outstretched hand, a way of softening the authoritarian image of China.
Today, about twenty countries have their Chinese pandas. Will the United States welcome new ones in the near future? We’ll see. Know for the anecdote, that when Emmanuel Macron went to China at the beginning of April, he had at his side big bosses in search of contracts but also the director of the zoo of Beauval, which shelters two giant pandas. They will be able to stay longer than planned, until 2027.