Ya Ya, Between A Broken Heart And Big Chill In Giant Panda Diplomacy
This is the story of Ya Ya, a female panda whose fate captures for the degrading relationship and eroding trust between China and the U.S.
Ya Ya, a Chinese Giant Panda, had been living at the Memphis Zoo in the United States for 20 years, beginning back in the days when the relationship between Beijing and Washington was far more cordial. Her arrival was part of what's known as "panda diplomacy", when Beijing lent out its beloved signature animals as a sign of friendship.
Ya Ya was in a relationship, if we can use this term, with Le Le, a male panda. But Le Le died in 2021, from heart complications, and Ya Ya never seemed to recover from his death. She started to lose weight, her coat faded. This is when politics flared up.
Photos of Ya Ya looking rather ragged began to circulate in China, and the Americans were immediately accused of abuse. A public clamor began to mount: Ya Ya should be repatriated, demanded nationalists and animal rights activists. So last Thursday, Ya Ya landed back in China onboard a special flight, every movement followed by hundreds of millions of Chinese on social media. Her arrival in Shanghai was like that of a national hero celebrity.
An object of worship
Why did this case turn into a political cause célèbre in China? Yes, because it's the United States; and because it's about pandas. The recent deterioration of relations means that everything takes on a symbolic dimension; and the national animal species panda had no chance of escaping it.
On social media in China, users posted photos of pandas living in Russia that appeared to be in much better condition. We can also recall that China has just given back to the French Zoo of Beauval, the only one in France to have two pandas, the right to keep them for three more years, for a substantial rental fee. The director of the Beauval Zoo accompanied Emmanuel Macron to China last month, a sign that this is indeed a matter of state.
The giant panda is the object of worship in China, on a dedicated website, we can follow 24-7 the life of pandas filmed by a webcam in Sichuan, their region of origin. When the species was threatened with extinction, the efforts of researchers to arouse the pandas' low libido were known to all: they tried everything, porn tapes and even viagra. Now that the giant pandas are out of immediate danger of extinction, it is not to let them die at the hands of American imperialists.
Xi and Macron
Xi and Macron on the French President's visit to China last month where he sought to soften tensions.
Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via ZUMA
This all comes as Sino-American relations have indeed been deteriorating for the past four years. From Donald Trump to Joe Biden, tough anti-China stance is a bipartisan subject.
Last week, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined a U.S. doctrine in a major speech. In particular, he echoed a nuance stated last month by Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission by stating the U.S. wants to reduce the risk with China, but does not have a desire for “decoupling."
This means cutting ties in advanced technologies that affect U.S. security, but no desire to interrupt the flow of business, which in fact continues to grow. This nuance may seem like some as an olive branch, a sort of timid outreach like Janet Yellen, the Treasury Secretary, did a week ago.
Beijing has yet to react, and it will be interesting to see if Xi Jinping sees it as positive gesture, a small opening after weeks of verbal escalation. But as we can see by Ya Ya's return, decoupling is in the air — this time on Beijing's side.