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Michelle Obama in China: first ladies and panda diplomacy

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Petar Kujundzic/AP

(Read caption) First lady Michelle Obama (l.) and her mother, Marian Robinson (r.), feed apples to giant pandas during their visit at Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

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First lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia got to do something Wednesday morning they’ll probably remember all their lives: feed pandas in China.

Nearing the end of their Chinese trip they made a visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, in Chengdu (of course). The capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China, Chengdu is located in an area that has been home to giant pandas since ancient times.

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The facility was shut to the public for their security, and the Obamas walked through blossoming trees amid the sound of chirping birds to a low fence looking out on bamboo groves, where six of the cuddliest-looking big mammals in the world were contentedly munching their bamboo breakfast. The Obamas were looking at LiLi, a 22-year-old grandmother giant panda, and five youngsters, according to Chinese officials.

The Chengdu panda facility houses 80 giant pandas as well as a colony of red pandas and is one of the major panda breeding stations in the world. There are only about 2,000 of these animals left, so they need all the help they can get.

The pool of reporters accompanying the Obamas got whisked to another side of the enclosure and thus did not hear the first lady’s reaction to the pandas, apparently. We’re sure it was appropriately enthusiastic.

Panda diplomacy is a major outreach tool of the Chinese government of course, and has been for centuries. Mao Zedong, the country’s first communist leader, was thus acting in line with his nation’s heritage when he used the black-and-white and adorable creatures as a means to ease the opening of relations with the United States.

The crucial opening occurred during President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972. He was accompanied by his wife, first lady Pat Nixon, who at one of the half-dozen formal banquets they attended was seated next to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai.

“The dawn of a new beginning was in the air,” reads an account of the dinner from the Nixon Foundation.

Mrs. Nixon and Mr. Zhou discussed her activities from the trip, which had included a visit to the Peking Zoo to see giant pandas. The first lady noticed that on the table in front of her there was a box of cigarettes wrapped in pink tissue and decorated with pictures of pandas.

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She showed Zhou the box and said how much she had enjoyed seeing the animals themselves.

“Aren’t they cute? I love them,” Mrs. Nixon said.

“I’ll give you some,” the Chinese premier replied.

And so he did. On April 20, 1972, Mrs. Nixon attended the opening of the Panda House at the National Zoo, designed specially to accommodate the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.

The pair were a sensation and became a huge tourist attraction in Washington, despite the fact that panda activity level is not high.

“Even those in high levels of government were unprepared for the pandas’ popularity,” according to the Nixon Foundation. “Hundreds of people visited every day, standing several rows deep to catch glimpses of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing top attractions at the zoo until their deaths in the 1990s.”

Giant pandas are still a popular Chinese export to the US, but nowadays the animalst are leased, not donated. Any cubs born in the US become the property of China after four years, and are returned.

Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing had five cubs, but sadly, none survived more than a few days. For years their mating success, or rather lack thereof, was a big local Washington news story.