Panda Diplomacy

Sino-US relations

How baby panda Bei Bei became diplomat in US-China relations

In an election year in which both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have forecast tougher times ahead for US-China relations, a birthday event for panda cub Bei Bei took on an especially bilateral feel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2016, 10:00pm

Bei Bei did it again.

The National Zoo’s giant panda cub, who slept through his media debut in December and then snoozed through his public debut in January, demonstrated again on Saturday that he might benefit from an alarm clock.

When the time came for the 30kg cub’s first birthday bash, he was a no-show - sprawled out on the cool concrete floor of his indoor pen, while thousands baked in the heat outside for a chance to wish him well.

Infographic: Panda diplomacy

“Oh, no,” said Heiko Ramsey, who had planned a trip from Florida around the panda party, jokingly referring to Bei Bei as his “other baby” he came to see in the District of Columbia - not just his son attending George Washington University.

After a while, however, Bei Bei’s mother, Mei Xiang, decided to devour her son’s frozen birthday “cake”, a giant block of flavoured ice packed with chunks of apples and sweet potatoes.

Only a handful of American and Chinese VIPs got to see Bei Bei frolic early Saturday, tasting his new favourite treat, honey, during the official celebration of his August 22, 2015, birth.

And in the wacky political year of 2016, it also might have been the world’s first panda birthday party with geopolitical implications.

In an election year in which both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have forecast tougher times ahead for US-China relations, the early morning event for Bei Bei took on an especially bilateral feel.

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Standing in the zoo’s panda pen, Chinese Ambassador Cui Tiankai addressed more than 50 TV cameras from news outlets around the world. He called Bei Bei’s birth and healthy first year “fruit of collaboration between China and the United States and a strong symbol of our friendship.”

As if on cue, Mei Xiang, soon sauntered up and began licking a bamboo stick holding a banner that read “Luck and Friendship”. The invited crowd of Chinese officials and zoo executives gushed as the elder panda’s move initiated a Chinese tradition of choosing a life symbol for the panda cub.

Leslie Wilkes nearly cried. The zoo volunteer said she saw truth behind the Chinese ambassador’s statement and hoped the message of cooperation wouldn’t be overlooked in the current political climate.

“I don’t think people know how much we work together with the breeding centre in China and how much collaboration there is behind the scenes to make this a success,” Wilkes said. “It’s really exciting.”

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Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, added a heaping dose of that sentiment later to a crush of reporters. He compared the United States and China to family, noting how Bei Bei seemed to need the support of his mother Saturday to feel comfortable joining in the ceremony.

Just after 8am, it wasn’t clear that even the first wave of guests would get to see Bei Bei. After cautiously stepping into his outdoor area, the cub turned around and tried to climb a metal door, as if to return to where his mother was inside.

Bei Bei then waddled over to a pine tree and hid in the underbrush. After about 10 minutes, zookeepers let out Mei Xiang, who quickly followed her nose to where trainers had lathered honey onto three bamboo stems holding up banners with Chinese symbols.

First the 18-year-old mama bear approached the one with a Chinese knot, symbolising friendship. It soon tumbled and the mother and cub licked the honey. The mama bear soon sent the other two, emblazoned with symbols for fertility and health, crashing to the ground and Bei Bei feasted on the honey.

At a news conference after the ceremony, Kelly was asked about the upcoming renegotiation with China in 2020 to keep pandas at the zoo. Kelly sought to tie it all together.

“I think Bei Bei told us one thing: Family is very important,” he said. “Americans, Chinese realise family is important and friendships are important, and it’s our friendship that will cause us to be successful for future generations.”