Exclusively native to Chinese mountain ranges, the panda has become a significant tool in the country’s evolving diplomatic strategies.
The giant panda is one of the most charismatic and beloved species on the planet. The clumsy bear has stolen the hearts of the public for years and has infiltrated many aspects of our day to day lives, from movie franchises to commercials to brand logos. People adore pandas so much in fact, that we recently managed to downgrade the species from “endangered” status to “vulnerable”.
This was quite an accomplishment, given that the so-called “idiot bears” exclusively eat a food they are physiologically ill equipped to digest, refuse to have sex, and the few babies that they do manage to conceive are either abandoned or crushed by their parents shortly after birth. Most conservationists will tell you that the giant panda’s abilities as a self-reliant animal are practically non-existent, and we have plenty of video evidence to support that. But starting in the mid-twentieth century, pandas began fulfilling a very different kind of role within the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China.
The giant panda’s natural habitat exists entirely within the mountain ranges of central China, where approximately 1500-3000 individuals remain in the wild. Over 400 pandas currently live in captivity, and as of 2014 almost 50 of these resided outside of China. The presence of these Chinese national icons in states outside of China might seem arbitrary, but are in fact evidence of a carefully planned diplomatic strategy.
Similar to how De Beers made diamonds seem more valuable than they are, China used its monopoly on the giant panda population to restrict and control the global supply. Between 1957 to 1982, China gifted 23 pandas to 8 different ally countries: the USA, Mexico, the UK, France, Germany, North Korea, Japan and the USSR.
A particular highlight of this period of panda gifting was the arrival of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States after President Nixon visited China in 1972. The visit marked a historic step forward in normalising relations between the US and China, and to cement the growing relationship the Chinese government presented Nixon with these two valuable Chinese assets (which he reciprocated with the gift of some musk oxen).
The pandas were kept in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where they attracted over a million visitors in their first year alone. Following the success of this exchange, British Prime Minister of the time Edward Heath requested pandas during his visit to China, and London Zoo was promptly rewarded with the arrival of Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching.
After Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, Phase 2 of panda diplomacy emerged. The panda exchanges were no longer gifts, but were offered only on a rental basis. The standard loan for a panda is for a maximum of ten years, and includes a £600,000 fee. Any cubs that are born also become the property of the People’s Republic of China, and following the ten year loan period the pandas must be returned to Chinese ownership.
In the 2010s, Phase 3 of panda diplomacy began, where the pandas were exclusively offered to nations that could supply China with valuable resources. The pandas took on a new role as symbols of Chinese willingness to build strong trade relationships.
Most Brits are aware that the only giant pandas in the UK reside at Edinburgh Zoo - but why was Scotland bestowed with such an honour? According to the researchers, this panda loan was negotiated due to the Chinese desire to access - amongst other things - Scottish salmon. Historically, Norway had supplied China with salmon, but following the awarding of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, relations between Norway and China had become strained. So instead they turned westward, and the Chinese elites got their Land Rovers and salmon meat and Scotland received Tian Tian and Yang Guang for their trouble.
But while the pandas can be used to reward good relations, there are indications that they can also be an avenue to signal disapproval in bilateral relations. Shortly after the then-POTUS Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama in 2010, two US-born panda cubs were on a flight back to China. It has been suggested that the timing of this recall was significant, as the President had already been warned that the meeting would damage US-Chinese relations.
Malaysia, which is the third-largest trading partner with China within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, had been clamouring for a panda of their own for some time. By 2014 the loan had been agreed, a special panda enclosure was built at Zoo Negara, Malaysia, and the day of the pandas arrival came - but no pandas were delivered. According to Malaysian ministers, the delivery of the pandas was postponed due to tensions over the disappearance of flight MH370. The flight had been carrying many Chinese citizens, and the Chinese government was unhappy with how the Malaysian authorities were handling the investigation. The pandas were eventually handed over - after a deliberate delay of several months. to
As the use of the pandas as diplomatic tools has evolved, so too has China’s foreign relations and interests. It will be fascinating to see what the future of Chinese diplomacy might look like, and which countries might next be welcoming - or waving goodbye to - these fascinating animals.