General Secretary Xi Jinping opened the door to returning giant pandas to US zoos.
Xi's comments come as all giant pandas at US zoos will soon be sent to China.
Xi and President Joe Biden met for a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday.
General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Xi Jinping floated the possibility of sending additional pandas to US zoos, a signal that Beijing still clearly sees some diplomatic currency in the furry creatures.
"We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation, and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples," Xi said during a dinner speech on Wednesday night before business leaders.
Xi's comments came as lease agreements with US zoos are set to expire with no immediate replacement, meaning all giant pandas currently in the nation will soon return to China.
The Atlanta Zoo is currently the only zoo in the US left with giant pandas. The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, which was first gifted pandas after then-first lady Pat Nixon noticed them during a 1972 dinner party, recently sent back its remaining pandas. Zoos in San Diego and Memphis previously sent back their pandas.
"Recently, the three pandas at Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington D.C. have returned to China. I was told that many American people, especially children, were really reluctant to say goodbye to the pandas, and went to the zoo to see them off," Xi said, according to a transcript of his remarks published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
Once bestowed as gifts, China now leases the once-endangered animal to zoos around the world. As The Washington Post previously reported, research shows that Beijing would often send pandas around the time of major trade agreements being struck. The expiration of the US panda agreements was taken as a further sign of the declining US-China relationship. Under Xi, the nation has become increasingly authoritarian and far more insular.
President Joe Biden and Xi met face to face on Wednesday, the first in-person meeting with each other in a year. Their roughly four-hour chat came as top Biden administration leaders have sought to soothe tensions with Beijing after a tumultuous year that sent the already further fractured relationship spiraling. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle in the US have ratcheted up criticism of China, especially after a Chinese spy balloon flew over sensitive US military installations.
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