Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted that Beijing could send new pandas to the United States, days after three beloved pandas who for years lived in the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington were repatriated to China.
In a Wednesday night speech in San Francisco, Xi acknowledged how difficult it has been for Americans to say goodbye to the three pandas — Mei Xiang, 25, Tian Tian, 26, and their 3-year-old son, Xiao Qi Ji.
“I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to send them off,” Xi said. “I also learned that the San Diego Zoo and Californians very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”
Xi spoke before a friendly audience of U.S. business executives, government officials and scholars who are generally supportive of trade and dialogue between the two superpowers.
Tickets for the dinner and cocktail reception, hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, were $2,000 each.
Those who paid for seats included industry titans such as Apple chief executive Tim Cook and Larry Fink of BlackRock. Tesla CEO Elon Musk attended the pre-reception drinks but was not seen at the dinner.
The Chinese leader — who met with President Biden for the first time in a year earlier that day — was referring to the San Diego Zoo’s decades-old tradition of hosting pandas. In 2019, the zoo sent its last two pandas back to China: Bai Yun, who had lived in San Diego for 23 years, and her then-6-year-old son, Xiao Liwu. Gao Gao, Bai Yun’s mate, was sent back in 2018.
“Pandas have long been envoys of friendship between the Chinese and the U.S.,” Xi said in his Wednesday remarks. “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.”
Speaking to reporters in San Francisco, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that if China decides to send some pandas to the United States “we would absolutely welcome them back.”
“But that’s got to be a decision President Xi makes,” Kirby said.
San Diego Zoo president Paul A. Baribault, said in a statement Thursday that the zoo is “excited to hear of President Xi’s commitment in continuing the giant panda conservation efforts between our two countries, and his attention to the wish of Californians and the San Diego Zoo to see the return of giant pandas.”
The Smithsonian National Zoo declined to comment on Xi’s remarks.
Panda fans in the United States were left heartbroken earlier this month when pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Xiao Qi Ji left the D.C. zoo for China on Nov. 8, making Washington panda-less for the first time in 23 years.
The trio’s November departure was the fourth time members of the zoo’s giant panda family have departed for China, but there had always been giant pandas who stayed behind when the others left.
This year, the giant pandas were escorted out of the zoo in three large shipping crates and boarded a freight plane at Dulles International Airport. The trio’s departure followed a wave of goodbyes: a nine-day “Panda Palooza” celebration, final visits by generations of panda fans, and one couple’s return to the scene of their 2016 engagement at the zoo’s panda house.
The three pandas were among eight who had lived at the zoo since 1972 when, following a visit from President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Pat Nixon to China, Premier Zhou Enlai gave the United States two 18-month-old pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.
Ling-Ling died suddenly in 1992, and an ailing Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in November 1999. The zoo was then without giant pandas until December 2000 — a gap of just over a year — when Tian Tian and Mei Xiang arrived.
Aside from Xiao Qi Ji, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian produced three surviving cubs. Zoogoers from Washington and around the country have had the chance to experience D.C.’s giant pandas, and 10 presidents have held office since they came to town.
Xi’s talk of pandas came on the heels of his face-to-face meeting with Biden in which the leaders agreed to restore communications between the two countries’ militaries. The meeting helped lower tensions between the two superpowers, which also agreed to strengthen counternarcotics cooperation in the hopes of lessening the United States’ fentanyl crisis.
The two agreements — and Xi’s hint at the possibility of more pandas — are a rare sign of cooperation between the world’s two most powerful countries, which have been at odds over trade, cyber- and maritime security, human rights, and a range of other pressing issues.
The Chinese leader’s remarks were notably upbeat, praising the American people despite the historically rocky relations between Washington and Beijing, and underscoring the common bond between the two nations.
“Our two peoples are both kind, friendly, hard-working and down-to-earth. We both love our countries,” Xi said.
He also underscored the World War II cooperation between the United States and China against “Japanese aggressors,” including the safe harbor provided by Beijing to U.S. airmen running low on fuel after completing bombing missions against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“These stories fill me with firm confidence that the friendship between our two peoples, which has stood the test of blood and fire, will be passed on from generation to generation,” he said.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who spoke before Xi, thanked him for cooperating with the United States on military dialogue and counternarcotics agreements that she said would “save lives.”
“Thank you, President Xi, for your collaboration and coordination,” she said.
But outside the cavernous hotel ballroom was a more rancorous scene.
Protesters supporting the liberation of Tibet and opposing the Chinese government waved flags and chanted, with one woman climbing a pole and shouting, “Free Tibet.” Across the street, there was a counterprotest of pro-Chinese government demonstrators who waved national flags.
While Xi extended a warm hand to the American public, he also criticized the way the Biden administration refers to China as a strategic threat.
“If one sees the other side as a primary competitor, the most consequential geopolitical challenge and a pacing threat, it will only lead to misinformed policymaking, misguided actions and unwanted results,” Xi told the packed crowd. “China is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States.”
Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.