Two American-born pandas arrived in their new China home Friday, bringing a welcome dose of cuddly to the countries' currently strained relations.
Special crates carrying Mei Lan, Tai Shan and armloads of bamboo were eased from a cargo jet and onto the tarmac in southwestern China, the start of a breeding mission in efforts to keep the well-loved but endangered species going.
Immediately, the giant pandas faced just what they'd left in the United States — live TV coverage and a passionate crowd.
"On the way over, they were both OK. Mei Lan was a little nervous, but basically they were both OK," said a tearful Nicole Meese, Tai Shan's longtime keeper at the National Zoo.
"Both pandas have become endearing goodwill ambassadors for China in the United States," said David Brown, U.S. consul general in Chengdu.
Millions of people fell in love with 3-year-old Mei Lan from Zoo Atlanta and Tai Shan, a 4 1/2-year-old born in Washington, watching them grow up at the zoos and via online panda cams.
They were always destined to return to China, under an agreement that says the country retains ownership of adult pandas and any offspring.
China quickly picked up on the excitement Friday, with China Central Television reporters intently showing off flow charts of the pandas' journey and hundreds of people crowding a welcome ceremony outside the airport. Officials from the U.S. zoos handed over the pandas' files to Chinese officials.
China has long used pandas as a friendly gesture in diplomacy, and their safe transfer from the United States gave diplomats a rare moment of harmony while so many other areas of bilateral relations are on shaky ground.
In the space of a week, the United States has touched on two of China's most sensitive issues, announcing planned arms sales to Taiwan and on Thursday confirming that President Barack Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader visits Washington this month.
"Maybe the pandas could have stayed a bit longer to become a kind of offset for the areas of China-U.S. relations that are lacking in emotional elements," said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University in Beijing.
He called the panda diplomacy "win-win" and pointed out that China extended Tai Shan's stay in the U.S. by 2.5 years.
As the pandas left Washington, Xie Feng, minister of the Chinese Embassy, said Tai Shan "has grown up with the blessing, love and care of the American people."
"He has now grown into a handsome young man, and it's time for him to go home," he said.
Now a new team that includes zoologists, vets and nutritionists is waiting for him at the Ya'an Bifeng Gorge Breeding Base in the southwestern province of Sichuan. "We have also prepared a variety of fresh bamboo for him to choose from," Wang Chengdong, a veterinarian with the base, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Mei Lan will go to the Chengdu Research Base, which has already started looking for a Chinese teacher for her. It has also asked the public to choose her "boyfriend" among profiles of male pandas posted online.
China first sent pandas to the U.S. in 1972 as a gift to the U.S. people after President Richard Nixon's historic visit. None of the cubs of that first couple, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, survived. That's partly why Tai Shan, the first cub to grow up in the U.S. capital, is so adored.
"I'll miss him very much, and I am sure he will be really loved here," Meese said.
China lent Tai Shan's and Mei Lan's parents to U.S. zoos for breeding. Tai Shan's parents are expected to return to China in December 2011, Xinhua reported.
The young pandas will become part of a breeding program in their endangered species' native land. About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild, and another 290 are in captive-breeding programs worldwide, mainly in China.