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We need birthright citizenship for pandas

Justice for Bao Bao.
Justice for Bao Bao.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Birthright citizenship — the principle that anyone born in the United States is a citizen of the United States — has been in the news lately, with many Republican Party politicians arguing for a revision of the practice in order to curtail alleged "anchor babies" and dissuade foreigners from trying to move here. But in at least one important respect, the principle of birthright citizenship does not go nearly far enough.

Americans may be shocked to learn that the two adorable panda cubs born this past weekend in Washington, DC, are not American pandas. Their birth in the United States does not guarantee them residency. Instead they — like their big brother Tai Shan before them — will be deported to China when they turn 4 years old. According to the People's Republic of China, all pandas born anywhere in the world are the property of the PRC. Foreign countries that wish to host pandas must, as a condition of doing so, accede to this claim.

Bad as that is, the American media tends to add insult to injury by symbolically opting in to the Chinese viewpoint on the panda issue.

Reporting on Mei Xiang's newest cubs, for example, Faith Karimi, Kevin Bohn, and Amanda Watts reported for CNN that "when [their big sister] Bao Bao turns 4, she will be sent back to China."

Here is the thing. Bao Bao is not from China. Bao Bao has never been to China. Bao Bao is an American panda, born and raised in the nation's capital. She's no more Chinese than fortune cookies or General Tso's chicken.

Yet this is no random error. I recall painfully clearly that when Tai Shan was deported, the media widely claimed he was being sent "back" to a country he'd never so much as visited:

The argument that the "return" to China is necessary for breeding purposes seems questionable to me. Semen can, after all, be transported from continent to continent considerably more easily than a whole panda. And the specialists at the National Zoo seem to have a breeding and pregnancy-management track record that's at least as good as any Chinese facility. They actually do transport semen between China and the United States to impregnate Mei Xiang, a process tracked in somewhat painstaking detail on the zoo's Instagram account.

The truth is that panda cubs have to be sent to China because of power politics.

The Chinese have all the leverage, so they get their way. Legally speaking, humans born in the United States are Americans, but pandas born in the United States are Chinese. But while these agreements may bind American zoos and even the American government, there's no need for the rest of us to maintain the Orwellian pretense that anyone is being sent "back" anywhere. Pandas born and raised in the United States are simply shuffled off to a foreign country as part of a diplomatic and economic exchange that's entirely beyond their control.