U.S.-Chinese relations took an unusual turn last week as Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States, travelled to Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an as part of a goodwill visit to the People’s Republic of China. Trip highlights included playing ping pong with Beijing high school students; touring the Forbidden City with Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping; exploring the Great Wall with her daughters; and promoting her “Let’s Move!” campaign by practicing tai chi and jumping rope with Chinese youth. On their last day in China, the Obama girls made a special trip to visit one of the most important sites to the relationship between China and the U.S.: the Chengdu Panda Base.
Often seen as an important symbol of the U.S.-Chinese relationship, pandas have been used extensively over the years as a shared cultural icon for the two countries. The importance of the panda in U.S.-Chinese relations began in 1972 during Richard Nixon’s famed visit to the country. Pat Nixon, who received a tour of the Beijing zoo while Richard Nixon was occupied in diplomatic talks, was taken by the cuddly creatures. It was after this visit that China gave two pandas—Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing—to the U.S. in a move to publicly show the goodwill between the two countries. This type of “panda diplomacy” has continued to this day has also been used to strengthen Chinese relations with other countries such as Japan, Mexico, France, and Great Britain. Peng Liyuan was the latest to partake in the panda enthusiasm in December when she made a video celebrating the 100-day anniversary of Bao Bao, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s youngest panda cub. Bao Bao’s popularity is no less heightened in the U.S.: after her birth, the ever-popular Panda Cam received so much web traffic that it eventually crashed.
As a student planning on studying abroad in Beijing in the fall, I am somewhat devastated that I missed Michelle Obama’s visit by just a few months. However, during her speech at Peking University’s Stanford Center, the First Lady made sure to emphasize the importance of study abroad, calling the American students in the audience, “citizen diplomats”. As a leading advocate in diplomacy through cultural exchange, we here at Meridian International Center hope that the First Lady’s words will inspire others to become “citizen diplomats” through nontraditional means of diplomacy, and that panda diplomacy never ceases—besides, what would D.C. do without Bao Bao?