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Inside Politics

The sad end of China’s “panda diplomacy”

On his way back to China: Bao Bao. Sarah L Voisin/Washington Post/Getty

One way to assess the change in US-China relations is to look at “panda diplomacy”, says Michael Schaffer in Politico. When Richard Nixon made his historic visit to Beijing in 1972, his wife told Chinese premier Zhou Enlai at a banquet that the pandas on his cigarette tin were “awfully cute”. He replied: “I’ll give you some.” Two months later, in “history’s most adorable diplomatic gesture”, two giant pandas were delivered to Washington’s National Zoo.

When it came to replacing Hsing-Hsing and Ling Ling in the year 2000, China was an “emerging WTO member”. This time, the bears Beijing sent were no gift – the zoo paid $10m to rent them. This deal was renewed until earlier this year, even as relations between the two governments “grew frostier”. But the latest talks floundered, and America’s last three giant pandas are being sent home to China. A history which began with a “cuddly gift at a triumphal inflection point in the last Cold War” is ending with “an empty panda house at the anxious dawn of the new one”.