December 11, 2013

COMMENTARY: Two Chinese ambassadors in Washington

Cui Tiankai

Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo. The cub, which on Dec. 3 was named Bao Bao, is the first baby panda blessed by the first ladies of China and the United States on the 100th day of its birth. First ladies Peng Liyuan and Michelle Obama both sent recorded video remarks for the 100-day celebration party.

The Smithsonian National Zoo: has introduced its newest giant panda cub: Bao Bao. Pronounced (bough-BOUGH), Bao Bao means precious or treasure in Mandarin Chinese. The cub, who lives at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., will make her public debut sometime next year.

National Zoo photo

Several generations of giant pandas have been part of the journey of China-U.S. relations over the past four decades. During President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in February 1972, first lady Pat Nixon was seated next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at the state banquet. Our premier pointed to a cigarette pack decorated with pandas on the table in front of them and asked, “Do you like it?” Mrs. Nixon, a bit confused, replied: “Well, I don’t smoke.” “I mean giant pandas,” said Premier Zhou. Two months after Mrs. Nixon said “Of course! They are so cute!” two pandas arrived at Washington’s National Zoo, where they were greeted by Mrs. Nixon. Since then, pandas have been sent and loaned to the United States as gesture of good will.

Forty years on, China and the United States collaborate closely in scientific research about and conservation of giant pandas. China has more pandas than any other country, followed by the United States, which has 15 pandas in zoos in Washington, Atlanta, San Diego and Memphis. Because it’s very difficult for giant pandas to breed naturally, Chinese and Americans have been working hard on breeding through artificial insemination; thanks to joint efforts, 12 panda cubs besides Bao Bao have been born in the United States. Bao Bao’s brother Tai Shan is the first panda born in Washington that survived infancy. When he and Mei Lan departed for China in February 2010, thousands of people braved heavy snow in Washington to say goodbye. Tai Shan is in very good condition at Wolong Panda Base in Sichuan province, where scientists are trying to determine whether he has fathered a cub.

Pandas are a daily element in the lives of many in Washington, where some Metro farecards display a panda image. But pandas not only transcend our countries’ cultural differences, they also merge them. The animation film “Kung Fu Panda,” for example, combines Hollywood technique and Chinese element.

Bao Bao, a clear envoy of China-U.S. friendship, is so popular that more than 123,000 people participated in online voting to pick her name. Bao Bao was born at a time when our two countries are determined to build a new model of win-win cooperation.

In “Kung Fu Panda,” the lead character, Po, is enlightened when his master quotes the saying “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. But today is a gift, that is why it is called the present.”

If we seize the present, tomorrow will not be a mystery. We have the power to give meaning to today’s reality, and therein lies the chance for a better future. Like the panda hero in the film, we can make ourselves stronger through cooperation with partners, with the ultimate aim not to conquer others but to maintain peace in the place where we all live.

Cui Tiankai is China’s ambassador to the United States. This column was distributed by The Washington Post, where it first appeared.
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