Panda visit wows Obama family on last day of tour
Updated: 2014-03-27 08:49
By Zhang Yunbi and Huang Zhiling in Chengdu (China Daily USA)
On the last day of a seven-day tour of China, US first lady Michelle Obama, her daughters and her mother were awestruck after visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Wednesday.
Obama and her daughters, Malia and Sasha, and Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, made a stop of more than an hour at the research site in Sichuan province. They wore dark-colored casual clothing on a moist but cool day.
During their visit to the scenic base, located in the northern suburbs of Chengdu, they gave out a collective "wow" as they watched a family of pandas eat their breakfast of bamboo.
Li Li, a 22-year-old female panda, was in an enclosure along with her five cubs. Not stopping their breakfast for their distinguished guests, they went on cracking and chewing bamboo.
Obama and her daughters were quiet as they observed the cubs, and then base chief Zhang Zhihe joined them and introduced the pandas' daily habits.
Robinson, wearing plastic gloves, also held out a long bamboo stalk that had a slice of apple at the end of it as the first lady stood attentively behind her.
"The base is a must for many first-time foreign visitors to Sichuan," said James Ayala, an American researcher of animal behavior who has worked at the base for nearly two years.
Yuan Peng, an expert on US studies and vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said the visit allowed the "Chinese public to have a better chance of getting to know the US first family".
The US first lady's family outings during her trip intrigued the Chinese public and prompted positive responses, said Chen Mingming, China's former ambassador to New Zealand and Switzerland.
It was "a good choice for citizen diplomacy", Chen said.
Last December, a new panda at the Smithsonian's National Zoo became the first panda cub to be blessed by Obama and her Chinese counterpart Peng Liyuan. She was named Bao Bao.
"The Sino-US relationship needs the soft influence of each nation's first lady to offset negative impacts (on official occasions) and achieve balance," Yuan said.
Obama flew back to Washington on Wednesday afternoon. She called Chengdu a "beautiful city" and said she would not mind living in China.
Dignitaries enjoy panda diplomacy
Visitors to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province are as likely to spot visiting foreign dignitaries as rare pandas.
Established in 1987 with six sick and hungry pandas rescued from the wild, the base is now home to 128 of the animals. It is also a must-see destination for many visiting foreign dignitaries.
"In the past 10 years, 17 foreign dignitaries and their spouses have visited our base," said Pu Anming, chief of the general office.
In 2006, Robert Zoellick, then US deputy Secretary of State assigned to manage US relations with China, hugged a baby panda, Jing Jing, a six-month-old cub, on his lap.
The Washington Post commented that becoming a public panda-hugger is an eloquent endorsement of the view that engagement with Beijing was the best path for the United States, and that China's emergence as an Asian power does not have to mean conflict in the Pacific.
A month later, a trip to the panda base by John Prescott, then British deputy prime minister, was similarly relaxed. Prescott asked in jest whether it was he or Jing Jing who needed protection, quipping that the cub would not bite him as she was a vegetarian.
"Soon after holding Jing Jing on his lap, the cub covered her eyes with one hand. He lifted her hands and Jing Jing gently bit his, which made him laugh. Finally, Jing Jing raised her head and kissed his cheek," said base chief Zhang Zhihe.
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Panda Bao Bao moves around in her habitat in Washington. Chip Somodevilla / Agence France-Presse
(China Daily USA 03/27/2014 page6)