Ya Ya, the giant panda who spent 20 years at Memphis Zoo, returned home to China on Thursday.
The 22-year-old panda, who had been on loan from China to the U.S. as part of Beijing’s “panda diplomacy,” had become a symbol of the two countries’ deteriorating relationship.
State-run newspaper China Daily reported that Ya Ya arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport around 4.20 p.m. local time.
For months, Chinese social media has been obsessed with brining Ya Ya home.
In December, the Memphis Zoo announced that Ya Ya and a male panda, Le Le, would return to China after their leases did not get renewed. But after Le Le suddenly died in February, Chinese social media users began sharing photos and unverified claims that the pandas had been neglected.
The fervor for Ya Ya’s return prompted state media to frequently provide updates on her condition, and some Chinese influencers living in the U.S. travelled hundreds of miles just to get glimpse of her and share her pictures and videos with their followers.
The Memphis Zoo denied any mistreatment of the pandas, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed concerns of neglect on Wednesday.
“During their stay at the Memphis Zoo, the giant pandas received good care from the zoo and were deeply loved by the American people,” said MFA spokeswoman Mao Ning.
She added that China is willing to continue working with the U.S. on protecting endangered species, but she did not say whether there were plans in place to loan out pandas in the future.
Chinese law stipulates that all pandas — even those born outside the country — are property of the government. As such, the country has a loan program whereby zoos can pay between $500,000 to $1 million per year for a panda.
But Beijing does not willingly lend out pandas. Rather, the country uses so-called "panda diplomacy," a type of soft power in which China loans the panda as a sign of healthy diplomatic relationships. If relations worsen, China can decide not to renew a panda lease.
In recent years, some have criticized "panda diplomacy," saying that China uses the animals to distract the public from its human rights violations against Muslim Uyghurs and its crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy movement.
A proposed bill sponsored by a Republican lawmaker last year sought to make all pandas born at American zoos property of the U.S.