The Washington, D.C., National Zoo announced May 29 that pandas would be back in the nation’s capital by the year’s close. Pandemonium immediately followed. The zoo launched an entire new line of panda swag, the return of “bearthday parties,” and a renewed expectation to raise (or borrow?) an estimated $25 million in order to “revamp” the panda habitat. 

The message was delivered via video with, predictably, the Smithsonian secretary and the National Zoo director, but perhaps less predictably, first lady Jill Biden. The first lady’s presence tells us what we need to know. Pandas are not your standard wild animal. 

China owns all pandas, so in order to receive one, the zoo (or in this case, our federal government) must contract with the Chinese government. In this case, taxpayers are paying one million dollars annually to lease two pandas for 10 years. The zoo’s new annual panda budget is $2.8 million — a purported three-quarters of which is covered by donations, the rest of which are federal tax or federally borrowed dollars. 

It’s surprising to have the pandas back so soon. Last fall, China pulled a power move by taking the pandas from the National Zoo. Pandas had been a fixture at the zoo for 50 years, and suddenly, with hardly any notice, the program came to a halt. China was doing what it could to gain the upper hand in dealing with the Biden administration. 

And it seems to have worked because the panda is back and the first lady is branding herself with it. 

But what did the Bidens give up for the panda? We deserve to know because people are not in favor of giving leverage to the Chinese Communist Party. In the past decade, we’ve witnessed the systematic dismantling of existing Chinese institutions in the United States, such as Confucius Centers, for fear of CCP infiltration. These have been conscious choices by Congress, state governments, and a previous White House to disengage and detangle U.S. economic contracts with the Chinese. 

And Americans frankly don’t need pandas at the zoo. Financially, the panda was not as beneficial as claimed. Since their departure in November 2023, National Zoo Director Brandie Smith said there has not been a noticeable decline in visitors. Sans panda, the National Zoo is still on track to have 2 million visitors a year.

Moreover, any panda presence requires us to pay China, which may not be gobs of money but surely could be used to benefit more than D.C. tourists. Moreover, pandas require extensive medical care and assistance in reproduction, pulling resources away from other animals.

Pandering to panda lovers is no way to conduct foreign affairs. And if it is, Americans at least deserve to know the details. What is the true cost, not in dollars, of panda diplomacy? 

Whatever the terms of the contract may be (certainly more than an annual monetary exchange), it’s likely more than what people would want to give.