Millions of Chinese welcome Ya Ya panda home after US stay | Politics News

Giant panda Ya Ya, who lived for 20 years in a US zoo, is back in China after a controversy over her health amid a sour relationship between Beijing and Washington.

Ya Ya arrived in Shanghai on Thursday afternoon amid a social media storm. Panda lovers who couldn’t make it to the airport launched what they called an online pickup for Ya Ya.

“We welcome the return of Ya Ya online” had amassed 340 million views on the Chinese messaging platform Sina Weibo when its 16-hour flight from Memphis, Tennessee, landed.

The Sina Weibo hashtag “Already Landed in Shanghai” had been viewed 430 million times as of Thursday night.

Ya Ya returned to China on a special flight a year after reports began to circulate that she and Le Le, the male panda at the Memphis Zoo, had health problems.

Le Le’s death in February and the emergence of images online of Ya Ya looking skinny and bony only raised concerns among panda lovers not only in China but also in the US and elsewhere.

As diplomatic tensions grew between the US and China over issues ranging from Taiwan to Xinjiang to human rights, some critics accused the US of failing to properly care for the pandas.

But now that Ya Ya is back home, most are simply focused on getting their health back on track.

“We need to find out the real reason why Ya Ya is sick now,” a Beijing resident who wanted to be identified only as Ms Shi told Al Jazeera. “We need to listen to the experts. We need to be more rational in this incident, if someone made a mistake. Maybe it’s just that the American Zoo didn’t do a good job. It has nothing to do with the Sino-American relationship. We have to look at it rationally.”

China has long operated a program of “panda diplomacy“, through which animals are lent for a limited time to zoos around the world as a symbol of friendship. Many zoos spend millions of dollars creating habitats for pandas; in the case of Malaysia, a spacious room with air conditioning – to meet the standards required by Beijing.

Ya Ya, who was born at the Beijing Zoo in 2000, was transferred to the Memphis Zoo under a conservation program in 2003.

The zoo spent $16 million to build a giant panda facility with traditional Chinese cultural elements, set up a breeding management and veterinary team, and planted about 4 hectares (10 acres) of bamboo before Ya Ya’s arrival, according to a report last month in China’s state-run Global Times.

The deal ended this April.

“Ya Ya is returning to China to live out her golden years,” the Memphis Zoo said in a Facebook statement as the panda left the United States. “After 20 years, Ya Ya has become a family, and she will be greatly missed by the Memphis Zoo staff and the local community.”

The Chinese government acknowledged that the pandas had been well cared for in the United States.

“During the giant pandas’ stay at the Memphis Zoo, they received good care from the zoo and great affection from the American people,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Wednesday.

A memorial stands at the day home of Le Le, a giant panda who passed away earlier this year at the Memphis Zoo on Saturday, April 8, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Karen Pulfer Focht/AP)
A memorial to Le Le, who died at the Memphis Zoo in February (Karen Pulfer Focht/AP)

Ya Ya began losing hair in 2006 and her condition worsened in 2014. Experts at the Memphis Zoo and in China tried various treatments for the condition but were unable to resolve the problem, according to the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens.

The organization said that heart disease had been determined as the cause of Le Le’s death. His remains were returned to China on the same flight with Ya Ya.

Beijing-based China analyst Einar Tangen blamed the Western media for fabricating a Chinese furor about Ya Ya’s health.

“It has become a symbol of Western narrative. They are saying that the Chinese press is whipping up the Chinese public and saying that they are state-owned media. That is not true,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The state media is actually saying that she is fine and that we are bringing her back. It really shows how far the Americans and the Chinese have drifted apart in perceptions.”

According to the Global Times, China currently has 60 giant pandas on loan to countries around the world.

“The panda is China’s unique animal and a national treasure,” said Su, a Beijing resident. “I think it’s good that people from other countries have the opportunity to know more about pandas.”

Ya Ya will be quarantined for 30 days before being transferred to the Beijing Zoo.

With reporting from Jessica Washington in Beijing

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