China woos Michelle Obama with panda diplomacy

Video from the White House shows Michelle Obama, her daughters and mother visiting the pandas at Chengdu Panda Base in China. (WhiteHouse.gov)

CHENGDU, China — On her last day in China, Michelle Obama became the latest in a long line of American government officials to be wooed by this country’s cute and cuddly panda diplomacy. The furry animals are housed on a research base in this city of 7 million in a bamboo-filled wonderland called Chengdu Panda Base.

As Obama, her daughters and mother passed through the pink blossom trees to see the giant panda enclosure, birds chirped. The quartet ignored the clicking cameras, pretending the media were not present, and peered over a wooden railing where they saw six pandas playfully eating bamboo.

While looking at LiLi, a 22-year-old grandmother and five young pandas, the first family may not have known that this much photographed moment had been seven decades in the making.

China has used its pandas as a symbolic way of connecting with the world since at least 1941, said Henry Nicholls, author of “The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China’s Political Animal.” During World War II, China’s ascendant nationalist party gave the panda as a gift to the Bronx Zoo in recognition of the United States’s assistance during the war.

“That was the beginning of China’s use of the panda as a political tool,” Nicholls said.

It increased under Mao Zedong, the first communist leader of the country. Mao was looking for an emblem that would represent China; that would almost be symbolic and synonymous with China.

“The panda was the obvious thing,” said Nicholls. “It is a uniquely Chinese animal. It was very rare, very valuable, very coveted by the West, and crucially to Mao it had no associations with China’s imperial past.”

In the late 1950s, Mao began to give pandas away to China’s communist allies, including the Soviet Union and North Korea.

When President Richard Nixon visited the country with his wife Pat in 1972, it was an important opening in U.S.-China relations.

Nixon, who was holed up in meetings with Chinese government officials, was not that interested in the pandas, but Pat Nixon toured the city and went to the Beijing zoo. She was wowed.

After the visit, China showily gave a pair of pandas — Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling — to the National Zoo, which Pat Nixon personally accepted.

The zoo’s relationship with China relative to pandas has continued, though Chinese officials no longer give away the animals. They are leased for large sums of money.

The zoo is nearing the end of a five-year lease agreement with China whereby U.S. officials lease two giant pandas for a total of $500,000. New cubs born at the zoo go to China after four years.

The money raised through the leases is supposed to go to panda research and preservation, but there are questions about how the money is spent because of the lack of transparency in China’s system, Nicholls said. Wildlife preservationists are advocating for more information about how the dollars are used.

None of the history or money seemed to be on the first family’s minds as they talked among themselves while watching the giant pandas play.

Chengdu Panda Base, which was closed to the public during the first family’s visit, is home to pandas of all ages, and the tour Obama took was also scheduled to take her to view panda cubs, generally much beloved. When Bao Bao, the newest cub born at the National Zoo in Washington, was born, the Panda Cam Web site at the zoo crashed because of all the Internet traffic it received.

It is unlikely that the Obamas saw any pandas that will eventually end up only miles from the White House at their local zoo. From this part of China, animals have gone to Atlanta and Memphis. China has supplied the National Zoo with giant pandas from a reserve in Wolong, an area in the Qionglai Mountains of Sichuan province.

Obama and family ended their trip with a lunch visit to a Tibetan restaurant, where she went to interact with one of the country’s minority communities. About 60,000 Tibetans live in Chengdu. In China, they are routinely discriminated against, and their political leaders are persecuted. Obama administration officials have maintained contact with Tibet’s political leaders over objections from Chinese officials.

Obama spoke of none of this, though her presence at the Zangxiang Teahouse seemed to indicate tacit support.

Instead, she and her family ate Tibetan cuisine, a relatively adventurous way to connect with the community. The sampling menu they were served included yak butter tea, yak soup made with highland barley, a yak meat pie made with minced onion and celery and boiled yak ribs. Yak is a Tibetan staple. No word on whether Obama liked it.

She and her family flew out of China following the lunch and is scheduled to arrive in the United States Wednesday evening.

Michael Ruane in Washington contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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