The countdown to the return to China of the giant panda Ya Ya, currently in the Memphis Zoo in the United States, has begun. In recent days, two more Chinese experts, two Beijing Zoo staff members, a veterinarian and a keeper, super-experts in the care of captive pandas, have arrived in the American city.

They joined a Chinese team already in Tennessee to assess the condition of the precious bear, with its distinctive black and white fleece. Ya Ya and her mate Le Le were supposed to return to China earlier this year because their 20-year loan agreement expired. But the male specimen died suddenly of a heart problem on Feb. 1 in the U.S. Zoo. Hence the prompt arrival in the U.S. of Chinese experts to try to figure out the cause of death.

The care of Chinese veterinarians brings the panda back into the spotlight for Beijing’s political use of this animal, which has become a symbol of China itself: pandas have for years been the affable face of Beijing’s diplomacy, becoming “ambassadors” of the planet’s second-largest economy to strengthen ties.

But the examples of ‘panda diplomacy’ are endless. In 1972, after U.S. President Richard Nixon met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong, China gave pandas Ling Ling and Xing Xing to the United States. The pandas also won over Angela Merkel, who in 2017 welcomed the three-year-old female specimen Meng Meng (“little dream”) and the seven-year-old male specimen Jiao Qing (“treasure”) at Berlin’s Tierpark Zoo along with Xi himself, who was visiting Germany after a G20 meeting; in that case, the arrival of the two pandas was called “symbolic” of Berlin-Beijing relations by the then German chancellor.

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