The White House is glad Xi is even thinking about returning pandas to U.S. zoos: 'We would absolutely welcome them back'

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The United States would welcome back any giant pandas China decides to send, the White House said on Thursday after Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted he might return some of the cuddly-looking black-and-white bears as a friendship gesture.

“He indicated a willingness to think about returning some of them. We obviously appreciated having them here. And we respect the sovereign decision that China made to remove some of the pandas,” White House spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing.

“And certainly should a decision be made by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) to restore some of the pandas to the United States, we would absolutely welcome them back.”

Washington’s National Zoo bid a tearful farewell to its beloved trio of giant pandas last week as the long-serving goodwill ambassadors to the U.S. capital began a journey back to China that was announced earlier this year.

Xi noted their departure in a speech to American business leaders in San Francisco Wednesday night on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

“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.

He said he also learned that the San Diego Zoo and people in California look forward to welcoming pandas back.

Xi mentioned only California, not Washington, when he hinted they might return. 

“Pandas have long been envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,” Xi said.

“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.”

The giant panda is the rarest member of the bear family and among the world’s most threatened animals, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

The National Zoo bears – Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Xiao Qi Ji – traveled to a reserve in China’s mountainous Sichuan province, where an estimated 1,800 pandas are still found in the wild, the zoo said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Michael Martina in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese)

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