(This post has been updated with more information on the trip’s sponsorship.)
While visiting China on a privately-funded congressional delegation trip, a Manhattan congresswoman has a specific personal mission: Get New York City its own pandas.
To kick off August recess, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) is traveling with a handful of colleagues for 10 days to the Far East on a “Mutual Education and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA)” trip, approved by the State Department, hosted by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and facililtated by the the U.S.-Asia Institute, a non-profit that regularly organizes these goodwill visits. The institute did not return calls for comment, and Maloney’s office would not say, citing “security protocol,” who else was going on the trip – or if they too were going panda shopping.
The group is there primarily to discuss trade policy with the Chinese, but if you’ve traveled 14 hours across the globe you might as well multitask.
And Maloney has her eye on the cuddly, bamboo-eating bears that make anyone in its presence spontaneously say, “Awww.”
The congresswoman plans to make a side visit (only a short 22-hour drive from Beijing) to Chengdu Research Base, which breeds giant pandas, to discuss options for bringing a pair to a New York City zoo. First lady Michelle Obama and her daughters also visited the panda enclosure on a visit to China in March.
“New York City’s economy is Congresswoman Maloney’s top priority. That’s why she is traveling to China to discuss trade policy and what can be done to increase our exports to the second largest economy in the world,” her spokesman said in an e-mail. “She will also take a few hours to visit a Panda research base to discuss the possibility of securing a Panda for New York City, which would help boost tourism.”
This has apparently been on Maloney’s bucket list for years, and she told the New York Post in an interview that Chinese and New York officials are open to it. New York City last had giant pandas almost 30 years ago, when the Bronx Zoo housed two for six months on loan, according to a 1987 New York Times story.
Pandas are only an attraction at a few U.S. zoos, including the National Zoo in Washington, which projected huge boosts in tourism when Bao Bao the panda cub was born there last August (Hey Congresswoman, the zoo is planning a 1st birthday bash for Bao Bao if you want to come.)
“Pandas are a symbol of good luck,” Maloney said in the NY Post interview. “New York needs some good luck and happiness. We’ve had 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the housing crisis.”
President Nixon was the first to bring pandas from China to the U.S. after receiving them as a gift from the Chinese government. The Nixons donated the bears to the National Zoo.
Hopefully the good panda karma would work out better for New York than it did for Nixon.