Ya Ya, the panda, was a symbol of friendship between China and the United States when she arrived in the U.S. 20 years ago. However, upon her return to China on Thursday, she became the subject of nationalistic fervor on social media. Chinese netizens and some animal welfare activists had raised concerns about Ya Ya’s treatment and condition at the Memphis Zoo, as well as her symbolic role in world affairs. The zoo has denied mistreating the panda, but online campaigns calling for her return to China intensified, reflecting the growing tensions between the two nations.
Ya Ya’s return trip to China was closely followed online, and people shared screenshots tracking her flight path into Shanghai. Some animal welfare groups have questioned her condition, complaining that she looks thin and her fur appears mangy. They have also blamed the zoo for the death of Ya Ya’s mate, Le Le, in February, although these contentions have been denied by the zoo and Chinese officials.
China has used pandas as part of its so-called panda diplomacy for decades, renting them to other nations for $1 million per year on 10-year contracts. If a cub is born, an additional $400,000 is given back to China, which is used for conservation efforts. Despite the cost and effort that keeping Ya Ya had incurred, and assurances from Chinese officials that she was being treated properly, some Chinese netizens and animal rights groups around the world continued to raise concerns about her welfare.
The state-run Global Times tabloid, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, linked the panda to Chinese-American relations, which have become strained due to tensions over Taiwan, the U.S. downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon, and Beijing’s growing assertiveness internationally. The editorial suggested that Ya Ya’s return to China during this period of heightened tension between the two nations was significant.
Ya Ya, who is 22 years old, was loaned to the Memphis Zoo from China in 2003, at a time when China-U.S. relations were much more cordial.