Pandas may return to California, China’s Xi says

Pandas might soon be returning to California, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested Wednesday at a dinner in San Francisco attended by hundreds of U.S. business leaders.

The return to China this month of the three giant pandas at the National Zoo in Washington has raised concerns that the United States could soon have none of the beloved bears. Pandas, which are endemic to China, have been a symbol of U.S.-China friendship since Beijing sent the first two to Washington in 1972 in what is known as “panda diplomacy.”

“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. “I also learned that the San Diego Zoo and the Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.” 

Xi did not say how many pandas might be sent to the U.S. or when.

The friendly gesture came after a day of talks between Xi and President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, aimed at easing fears that the world’s two biggest economies could be headed toward conflict. The four-hour summit was the first time the two leaders had spoken in a year.

Xi said pandas had long been “envoys of friendship” between the American and Chinese people. Alejandro Martinez Velez / Europa Press via Getty Images file

They reached agreement on a number of issues such as the resumption of military-to-military communications and cooperation on counternarcotics, including curbing the flow from China of precursor chemicals and pill presses that contribute to the U.S. fentanyl crisis.

Xi then attended a dinner for U.S. business leaders, hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, while Biden went to a dinner for APEC leaders.

For Xi, the dinner was a chance to court American businesses as China grapples with an economic slowdown. U.S. executives, meanwhile, were seeking insight on how to do business in an environment they see as increasingly unpredictable.

U.S. lawmakers and others had criticized those attending the dinner as ignoring China’s human rights record.

It is “unconscionable that American companies might pay thousands of dollars” to attend a dinner with Xi, said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, citing rights abuses in the Chinese region of Xinjiang that the U.S. government has said amount to genocide. China denies the allegations.

Among the roughly 400 dinner guests were Apple CEO Tim Cook, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal and FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam. Organizers said Tesla CEO Elon Musk attended an earlier reception but was not present at the dinner.

Addressing the room, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the vast majority of the U.S. trade and investment relationship with China is not affected by national security concerns and that the U.S. is committed to promoting reciprocal trade and investment in those areas.

“A growing China that plays by the rules is in all of our interests,” she said. 

Xi then spoke for more than 35 minutes, receiving a standing ovation before and after.

In a world of challenges, he said, the U.S. and China “must handle our relations well.”

Xi at the dinner with U.S. business leaders in San Francisco on Wednesday.Carlos Barria / AFP – Getty Images

China is ready to be a partner of the United States, and the world needs that relationship, Xi said, adding there was “plenty of room for our cooperation” as he rejected the view that China is a threat. 

“We should build more bridges and pave more roads for people-to-people interactions,” he said. “We must not erect barriers or create a chilling effect.”

Xi said pandas had long been “envoys of friendship” between the American and Chinese people. 

The departure of the National Zoo pandas left Zoo Atlanta’s four pandas as the only ones in the United States, and their loan agreement expires next year.

The San Diego Zoo has not had any giant pandas since 2019, and the last panda at the Memphis Zoo returned to China in April. 

“We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation,” Xi said, “and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.”

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