By Aakansha Malia 3:42 pm PST

In another sign of deteriorating U.S.-China relations, Ya Ya, a giant Chinese Panda that arrived in the United States 20 years ago on a loan agreement, bid farewell to the Memphis Zoo. Carried by a special FedEx ‘panda express’ plane, the giant panda landed in Shanghai on April 27 after a 16-hour flight. Memphis Zoo said in a statement on April 26, “After 20 years, Ya Ya has become like family, and she will be sorely missed by the Memphis Zoo staff and the local community. We wish her the best of luck in her new home.”

The panda’s departure marks not only the end of a 20-year loan agreement of the U.S. with the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens but also China’s ‘Panda Diplomacy’ in the U.S. The 22-year-old Ya Ya was supposed to return to China with her companion Le Le, but he died suddenly of heart disease in February of this year. On April 11, spokesperson of China’s Ministry of foreign affairs Wang Wenbin said Ya Ya was relatively stable other than the fur loss and that “China will get Ya Ya home safely at the fastest speed.”

Earlier this month, the Memphis Zoo celebrated Ya Ya’s farewell party, attended by 500 guests, featuring Chinese performances and goodbyes. The zoo said the panda’s presence was crucial for conservation and research projects. The Chinese followed the event closely online. Unlike the chubby image of her younger self, the 22-year-old Ya Ya looked frail and skinny, with her black and white coat missing clumps of fur. On its website, the zoo says: “Ya Ya lives with a chronic skin and fur condition. This condition does not affect her quality of life but occasionally makes her hair look thin and patchy. The condition is closely monitored by our animal care team and veterinary staff.”

The recent photographs of Ya Ya raised questions of mistreatment by the Zoo authorities. Many in China were shocked to see her condition, and they accused the U.S. zoo of not giving her ample care and attention. A comment on Weibo, China’s heavily censored Twitter-like platform, said, “Treating our national treasure with such an attitude is an outright provocation of China.” On the other hand, the U.S. Zoo refuted Chinese netizens and said both ‘Ya Ya and Le Le were the most spoiled animals on the planet,’ according to Associated Press.

Soon after, Chinese internet users were determined to rescue Ya Ya from the Memphis Zoo as the panda became a glaring symbol of U.S. bullying and suppressing China. Some joined online petitions and kept an eye on Zoo’s cam livestream, while other Chinese nationals in the U.S. regularly visited the Memphis Zoo to check her condition.

As backlash within China increased, the government sent out a team of medical professionals to investigate Le Le’s death and check Ya Ya. They concluded that Le Le suffered from heart disease and Ya Ya some fur loss. However, the Chinese were not convinced by their report. Meanwhile, videos of giant, playful, and energetic pandas in Moscow surfaced on the Chinese internet. Chinese citizens lauded Russia for caring for the Chinese bears in a sign of China’s perpetual pro-Russia stance on every global issue.

China currently loans its pandas to 20 countries, which started as a diplomatic gesture and gift but switched to a policy of high-priced ‘research’ loans. Chinese President Xi Jinping expanded ‘Panda Diplomacy’ immensely in Europe, approving new loans to countries from Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark to Finland. Last year, China sent a pair of pandas to Qatar, in the first loan to a Middle Eastern country. In contrast, Ya Ya was the last panda given to the U.S. by China.