SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled that China will send new pandas to the United States, calling them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”
“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 during a dinner speech with business leaders.
The gesture came at the end of a day in which Xi and President Joe Biden held their first face to face meeting in a year and pledged to try to reduce tensions. Xi did not share additional details on when or where pandas might be provided but appeared to suggest the next pair of pandas are most likely to come to California, probably San Diego.
The bears have long been the symbol of the U.S.-China friendship since Beijing gifted a pair of pandas to the National Zoo in Washington in 1972, ahead of the normalization of bilateral relations. Later, Beijing loaned the pandas to other U.S. zoos, with proceeds going back to panda conservation programs.
The National Zoo’s three giant pandas, Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji, eight days ago began their long trip to China. After their departure, only four pandas are left in the United States, in the Atlanta Zoo.
“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 in his speech. He added that he learned the San Diego Zoo and people in California “very much look forward to welcoming pandas back.”
Xi is in California to attend a summit of Indo-Pacific leaders and for his meeting with Biden. He made no mention of the pandas during his public remarks earlier in the day as he met with Biden.
When bilateral relations began to sour in the past few years, members of the Chinese public started to demand the return of giant pandas. Unproven allegations that U.S. zoos mistreated the pandas, known as China’s “national treasure,” flooded China’s social media.
But relations showed signs of stabilization as Xi traveled to San Francisco to meet with Biden. The two men met for about four hours Wednesday at the picturesque Filoli Historic House & Garden, where they agreed to cooperate on anti-narcotics, resume high-level military communications and expand people-to-people exchanges.
The National Zoo’s exchange agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association had been set to expire in early December and negotiations to renew or extend the deal did not produce results.
The San Diego Zoo returned its pandas in 2019, and the last bear at the Memphis, Tennessee, zoo went home earlier this year.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Khalil in Washington contributed to this report.