Ya Ya the Giant panda came to the United States (US) 20 years ago as a fluffy gesture of friendly relations between China and the US. But she returned home on Thursday and made headlines for the nationalist frenzy online. The news of her landing in Shanghai has raised concerns about Ya Ya’s care and condition at Tennessee’s Memphis Zoo as well as Yaya’s iconic role in world affairs on Chinese social media. However, Ya Ya was still welcomed by some animal rights activists.
The zoo denies having abused the 190-pound panda, but her return to China is the culmination of her fierce online campaign that reflects rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Ya Ya’s journey has been closely tracked online, with people sharing screenshots tracing the animal’s flight path to Shanghai. Vanessa Mai, a 22-year-old British student from Guangdong, told NBC News that she participated in the campaign to save Yaya, but now, the panda “has a lot of attention now, and life in China is definitely It will get better.”
Some animal rights groups have questioned her condition, complaining that her coat makes her look shaggy and she looks skinny. They also blame the zoo for the death of Ya Ya’s sidekick, Le Le, in February, but those claims have been denied by both the zoo and Chinese authorities. Images from Chinese broadcaster Phoenix News showed the bear softening herself up before her journey – leaving the dirt as an obvious gift to the zookeeper.
For decades, China has used the iconic black-and-white animal for its so-called panda diplomacy. However, Beijing’s four-legged soft power game is not free to beneficiary countries.”They rent pandas for $1 million a year, usually on 10-year contracts,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. “If a child is born, another $400,000 will be returned to China, all of which will go to conservation efforts.”
Despite the enormous effort and expense involved in keeping Ya Ya and Chinese authorities reaffirming that Yaya is being treated fairly, some Chinese social media users and animal rights groups around the world are criticizing Ya Ya. “Reject meaningless panda diplomacy,” wrote one person on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, with over 400 million users replying to the #Yaya topic. “Let’s never let them get kicked out of their homes again,” wrote another. Even the Global Times, a hawkish state-run tabloid that is the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, has linked pandas to Beijing’s growing international assertiveness.
“If this had not happened at a time when Washington is stepping up its containment and suppression of China, the issue would not have received as much attention,” the editorial said. “Anything with the ‘China’ tag, whether or not it is, could be considered a ‘threat’ by the United States.” Thomas Clemson, a spokesman for Panda Voices, a rights group that has worked with In Defense of Animals, said his group contacted the zoo after gathering evidence that the pandas appeared unhealthy.
“I thought if we messaged the zoo and tried to build a dialogue, they might help us, but they didn’t. I kept making it,” he said. Regarding Yaya’s condition, the Memphis Zoo says on its website that her “family genetics,” rather than diet, are responsible for her small size.
“Ya Ya also lives with a chronic skin and coat condition inherently linked to the immune system and directly affected by hormonal fluctuations. This condition does not affect her quality of life but does occasionally make her hair look thin and patchy,” as stated by the Memphis Zoo website. “The condition is closely monitored by our animal care team and veterinary staff.”
Before Le Le’s death, the zoo denied either bear was mistreated in a statement released in conjunction with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, which oversees the loaning of pandas. The statement said they had “established an exchange mechanism for the health status of giant pandas, including monthly health reports and annual physical examination reports.”
“The blood examination results were basically normal and there were no abnormalities,” it continued, adding that “after a careful review of both monthly reports and a recent extensive annual physical examination, CAZG feels that the panda bears at the Memphis Zoo receive excellent care.” Ahead of Ya Ya’s return, a spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry also said Wednesday that “the pandas were well taken care of by the park and deeply loved by the American people.”
Memphis Zoo said in a separate statement Wednesday that she was accompanied on her journey home by its senior veterinarian and Chief Zoological Officer. Despite the controversy, China “will want to keep the policy since it provides an alternative to the deteriorating relationship” with the U.S., said Rosen. “Let’s hope the U.S. doesn’t end the policy because of poor relations with China.”