SAN FRANCISCO – Panda enthusiasts, get ready to bearly contain your excitement: Just days after the nation’s capital bid a teary farewell to its beloved trio, China’s president signaled more of the fuzzy creatures might be headed to the U.S. in the future.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called pandas “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples” during a speech with business leaders on Wednesday, after the three pandas at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.. were returned to China.
“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas and went to the zoo to see them off,” Xi said.
He suggested the pandas might be sent to California and said he learned the San Diego Zoo and Californians “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”
The U.S. would welcome the return of pandas, according to John Kirby, a White House spokesperson on national security. Kirby said the decision is up to Xi and that the U.S. respected his decision to remove some of the pandas.
“We obviously appreciated having them here,” Kirby said Thursday. “And certainly, should a decision be made by the PRC to restore some of the pandas to United States, we would absolutely welcome them back.”
Xi’s comments came after he meet earlier in the day with President Joe Biden in San Francisco for the first time in a year in a move to reduce tensions between the two countries.
Pandas a sign of friendship between countries
Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian spent 23 years in the United States, and their cub Xiao Qi Ji was born in 2020. They began their trip back to China on Nov. 8.
The Memphis and San Diego zoos also previously returned their pandas to China, leaving only four pandas left in the U.S. − in Atlanta − two of which are set to be returned in early 2024, according to Zoo Atlanta.
Pandas in the U.S. had been on loan per contracts with China. Pandas have been in the country since 1972, after former President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China, a gift that some dubbed “panda diplomacy.” But China’s gradual pulling of pandas from Western nations is considered the result as a sign of declining relations with the U.S. and other countries, the Associated Press has reported. Negotiations to extend the contracts for the pandas were not successful.
Biden’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday could be a sign of relations stabilizing.
“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples,” Xi said Wednesday.
Xi didn’t give specifics on when pandas might return to the United States.
READ MORE:The National Zoo pandas are gone. Among those hardest hit is ‘Pantwon.’
Contributing: Zoe Wells, USA TODAY; The Associated Press