September 27, 2023

Nine o’clock on a Monday morning is not a typical start time for a birthday party, but that didn’t stop more than 200 people from showing up for this one. Collective awws rippled through the crowd as the guest of honor clambered down from his perch halfway up his favorite tree and slowly ambled over to his cake, made of apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, bamboo sprigs, and honey, held together with frozen fruit juices in the shape of a “3.”

Nine o’clock on a Monday morning is not a typical start time for a birthday party, but that didn’t stop more than 200 people from showing up for this one. Collective awws rippled through the crowd as the guest of honor clambered down from his perch halfway up his favorite tree and slowly ambled over to his cake, made of apples, sweet potatoes, carrots, bamboo sprigs, and honey, held together with frozen fruit juices in the shape of a “3.”

More fruit lay nearby in a big blue bowl that said “Birthday Boy” on one side and “Party like a Panda” on the other. He was about to dig in when the crowd started singing, prompting him to quizzically sit back on his haunches and stare until they finished, seemingly posing for the dozens of cameras pointed at him. Xiao Qi Ji, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., had just turned 3. 

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” one onlooker remarked to her family.

The gravitas of the occasion may have been lost on the birthday boy, but this birthday will be his last at home, the enclosure where he was born during the pandemic. Xiao Qi Ji and his parents—Mei Xiang and Tian Tian—will all be sent to China in early December, when the Smithsonian’s current agreement with the Chinese government to house pandas at the zoo expires.

China has long leveraged its monopoly on the world’s panda population as an instrument of its foreign policy. Never mind that Beijing often charges countries as much as $1 million a year for each panda, locked into contracts that establish Chinese exclusivity over every part of the bear’s DNA. The bumbling, furry mostly vegetarians—of which China has loaned at least 70 to zoos around the world—have become literal ambassadors of soft power, cute and cuddly faces that contrast with the more adversarial “wolf warrior” variant of Chinese geopolitical engagement.




Crowds gather to look at a panda.

Photographers and tourists watch as Xiao Qi Ji eats an ice cake for his third birthday on Aug. 21. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

“They make me happy. No matter how bad of a day I’ve had, I watch a panda video and every negativity is gone,” said Gina Koo, who drove down from New Jersey just for Monday’s birthday celebration sporting a panda T-shirt, a panda bag, a homemade birthday sign for Xiao Qi Ji, and several large “Happy 3rd Birthday” buttons with his name and face on it that she’s handing out. She’s part of a group of regulars all similarly decked out in panda gear and greets many of them by name. “We’re just all zoo friends,” she explained.

The ursine trio in Washington is the latest, and maybe the last, in a long lineage. Giant pandas have been a fixture of the National Zoo and a symbol of U.S.-China friendship for more than five decades, ever since then-President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972 that helped establish diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington. During that trip, first lady Pat Nixon was admiring the pandas at the Beijing Zoo when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai said, “I’ll give you some.” Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in the U.S. capital a few weeks later, staying at the zoo until their deaths in 1992 and 1999, respectively. They would have five cubs during that time, but none survived more than a few days.

Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, who arrived in December 2000, have had better luck. Their first cub, Tai Shan, was born in July 2005 and sent back to China in 2010. Their second, Bao Bao, was born in 2013, and her younger brother Bei Bei in 2015. They were returned to China in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Those births were enabled by two extensions of the bilateral agreement between the zoo and the China Wildlife Conservation Association to keep the two panda parents in Washington. Xiao Qi Ji’s unexpected mid-pandemic arrival that earned him his name (which means “little miracle” in Mandarin) was followed by another three-year extension in December 2020.


Pat Nixon looks at a panda.

Pat Nixon looks at a panda.

First lady Pat Nixon welcomes giant pandas Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to the National Zoo in Washington on April 20, 1972. With her is Ting-Hung, head of the Bureau of Public Service of the City of Peking, who accompanied the animals to Washington from China. Associated Press


One panda eats; a second panda sleeps.

One panda eats; a second panda sleeps.

Left: Giant panda Tian Tian eats bamboo at the National Zoo on April 16, 2022. Right: Mei Xiang relaxes on a rock in her enclosure at the zoo on Aug. 15, 2003. Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images and PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

There will be no extension this time, and no word yet on whether more bamboo-munchers will be sent in their stead next year. “Our focus is on the immediate care of these three individual animals,” Brandie Smith, the zoo’s director, told Foreign Policy in an interview on the sidelines of Monday’s birthday celebration. Sending pandas to China is a “complex process” that remains the priority, she added, “and then our next focus will be the next phase of the panda program for the future.”

That uncertainty has coincided with a frostiness in U.S.-China relations that has few parallels in the decades since Nixon’s fateful trip. A deep mutual distrust has taken root across the Trump and Biden administrations, exacerbated by tariffs, export controls, investment curbs, and spy balloons. China’s black-and-white furry ambassadors could simply be the latest collateral damage. 

There have already been some signs of friction—Ya Ya, a panda formerly at the Memphis Zoo, became a rallying cry for Chinese netizens and state media after photos of her looking frail and the sudden death of her partner, Le Le, fueled allegations of mistreatment by the zoo; the zoo denied any wrongdoing and sent her back to China earlier this year after its 20-year loan of the bears ended. From the Washington side, South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace introduced a bill last year calling for giant pandas born in the United States to belong to the country rather than be sent back to China. (Congress doesn’t really have a say in the panda program, however, with contracts typically negotiated directly between zoos and the Chinese government.)


A series of photos of baby pandas.

A series of photos of baby pandas.

From left: 4-month-old Tai Shan on Nov. 29, 2005; 4-month-old Bao Bao on Jan. 6, 2014; 4-month-old Bei Bei on Dec. 16, 2015; and 9-month-old Xiao Qi Ji on May 20, 2021, a day before the zoo reopened to the public after its pandemic closure.From left: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images; and Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Smith downplayed the potential spillover of geopolitics on panda conservation. “The people who are having the conversations, they’re the animal people, they’re the wildlife people, they’re the conservation people,” she said.

“None of us are qualified to talk about the bigger geopolitical situation, but I can say all of our conversations are very strong; they’re very positive,” she added. “The work we do is so collaborative, it’s really focusing on that and hoping for the best.”

Right now, the focus is on giving the three bears the best possible send-off, as Xiao Qi Ji’s birthday extravaganza illustrated. Mei Xiang had a similar celebration for her 25th birthday a month ago, and Tian Tian will celebrate his 26th this weekend. The zoo also plans to host “a giant farewell celebearation” called Panda Palooza between Sept. 23 and Oct. 1.


Panda Xiao Qi Ji sits in his enclosure.

Panda Xiao Qi Ji sits in his enclosure.

Xiao Qi Ji is celebrated on his third birthday at the National Zoo. Rishi Iyengar/Foreign Policy

Koo, who also witnessed Mei Xiang’s birthday last month, plans to attend all of them. “I’m still in denial, kind of, even though I know it’s going to happen,” she said. “I will cry just like I cried when Bei Bei left, but now they’re all leaving.”

What if they aren’t replaced? “It would break my heart if there weren’t pandas anymore,” Koo said. That might well be the case, given the tense ties between Washington and Beijing. 


Panda Xiao Qi Ji appears to be waving.

Panda Xiao Qi Ji appears to be waving.

Xiao Qi Ji lounges (Waves? Says an early goodbye?) in his enclosure before eating an ice cake for his third birthday at the National Zoo. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

“I can’t even think about it,” said Smith, who was previously curator of the panda exhibit when Bao Bao was born. (“I love all of our pandas, but Bao Bao is kinda my girl,” she confided.) The conservation conversation with China will continue regardless of where the pandas are based, she said, but the animals’ decadeslong association with Washington will be hard to untangle.

“Everything about this program has been so good and so strong, I can’t imagine a future at the National Zoo without giant pandas.”