In the shade, out of Washington Easter Sunday afternoon sunshine, 24-year-old Tian Tian and 23-year-old Mei Xiang sit and eat side by side, sometimes tumbling over a large bamboo stick.
The nearby 19-month-old Xiao Qi Ji sleeps without paying attention to all the trouble.
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are giant pandas.
The giant pandas have been one of the main attractions at the Smithsonians Washington National Zoo for years. Millions across America have been fascinated by their lives, rejoicing in the birth of their cubs, mourning their deaths and watching in mourning while some traveled.
In recent days, however, the black and white bears have been even more at the center of attention.
During Easter Sunday morning, the pandas had visits from the top brass at the zoo as well as from the Chinese ambassador to the United States. They also got special ice cream cakes with bottoms made from frozen diluted apple and pineapple juice, decorated with sweet potato, apple, carrot, pear, sugar cane, banana and yellow groove bamboo.
The celebrations did not center on Tian Tian and Mei Xiang directly, but rather took place to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of a former pair of giant pandas as a gift from the Chinese government.
It’s probably hard for many people now to realize how stunned Americans were 50 years ago to hear that Nixon would China. Nixon was an anti-communist hawk while the Chinese leader Mao Zedong was the champion of the global revolution.
No US president had ever been to China, and the United States did not recognize the communist government in Beijing. There were very limited diplomatic contacts and few business contacts.
But Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had secretly planned an approach to China and it White House planned an eight-day extravaganza around the visit designed to maximize exposure on television at home.
The meeting between Nixon and Mao both fit at the time.
The United States was still involved in the war in Vietnam which had cost more than 50,000 American lives, while Nixon also faced serious domestic problems. America wanted China’s help to get out of the swamp in the southeast Asia.
The Chinese, for their part, had been isolated for decades and had fought a border conflict with Soviet Union in 1969.
The story goes that Nixon’s wife, Pat, had seen pictures of pandas on a box during one of the banquets held during the visit, and that the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had on the spot offered first lady Pat Nixon a gift of two bears.
It was the pandas who subsequently arrived in Washington several weeks later with 20,000 people showing up to watch their first public appearance.
There were attempts to breed the pair. Ling-Ling had several pups, including a set of twins, but all were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.
Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing seven years later.
Washington Zoo secured other pandas. But unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, which were gifts from the Chinese government, the subsequent bears came mainly as part of a commercial event.
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang arrived in 2000, initially on a $ 10 million 10-year lease.
On this occasion, the breeding program was successful, and in 2005 the first youngster, Tai Shan, arrived.
There have now been three others. The first three have already been sent back to China when they reached four years as part of the lease. Some now have their own pups.
Tian Tian and Mei Xiang are scheduled to return to China next year, just as Xiao Qi Ji will be their last youngster considering their age.
The zoo hopes that a new agreement can be reached so that the panda’s habitat for trees, rocks and streams does not stand empty for long.
But the political relations between Washington and China are very different in 2022 than they were when Nixons arrived in Beijing in 1972.
The ongoing relations between the Americans and Russia over The International Space Station shows that cooperation in niche areas can survive even in pressured political times.
There are benefits to both sides of the panda program – in terms of both breeding performance and public recognition and support for the species. However, it remains to be seen whether there will be black and white bears on display to receive ice cream cakes on the 60th anniversary.