China’s most powerful diplomatic weapon

What has two black eyes, constantly eats bamboo leaves, and appeals to everyone? Pandas! This peaceful animal is adored all over the world.

Giant pandas are native to Sichuan, a province located in the southwest of China renowned for its spicy food and some of the other surrounding provinces. With less than 2 000 animals living in the wild, the giant panda was considered endangered mainly due to excessive poaching, continued habitat loss, and a very low birthrate. A lot of time and effort has been spent on saving the animal from extinction. China has established several panda reserves and state-of-the-art research centers across the country in an effort to conserve the bear. In 2016, the giant panda was down-listed from endangered to vulnerable on the global list of species at risk of extinction. To many Westerners, the panda merely represents the featured animal on the logo for World Wildlife Fund and probably comedic kung-fu cartoons. In China, the black-and-white-spotted bear is more than this: it is regarded as a majestic national treasure and an iconic animal that embodies special symbolism and meaning.

Giant pandas are part of the bear family, but they are quite different from other bears. In the Chinese language, the word for “panda” is “熊猫” (pronounced “xióng māo “), ‘熊’ (“xióng”) for “bear” and ‘猫’ (“māo”) for “cat” because it has unusual cat-like eyes. Because of its black and white spots, the animal also reminds of the Chinese yin and yang that represent order and harmony in the universe. Besides, the black-and-white bear is a peaceful and vegetarian animal that only eats bamboo and does not hurt or harm other animals.

The panda was also recently chosen as the mascot of both the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Olympics held in Beijing. The Chinese love pandas and take them as a symbol of national pride.

Over the centuries, the giant panda has become an emblem of peace, harmony, and friendship in Chinese culture. In the 1950s, China began giving out giant pandas to other nations as gifts in gestures of goodwill. Panda diplomacy has a long history: it is thought to have started in the seventh century when Empress Wu sent a pair of pandas to Japan. The tradition of sending pandas overseas resurfaced under Mao Zedong’s rule. During the Cold War, Mao gifted several pandas to its communist allies such as the USSR and North Korea. Eager for better relations with the Americans, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai decided to send two giant pandas to the United States as symbols of friendship: in 1972, Ling Ling and Xing Xing were donated to the National Zoo in Washington following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China.

As capitalism took off in China, the country decided to charge for the privilege. In 1984, China began renting out pandas to zoos across the globe for up to one million dollars a year. The wave of panda loans gained momentum in 2008 following the Sichuan earthquake that devastated China’s main panda conservation center. Officially China’s panda-loaning project is part of a captive breeding program to help save the giant panda from extinction. Lending pandas to other nations is a beneficial solution for China to rehouse its pandas as well as a lucrative source of funds to finance the development of panda reserves. As of 2019, 49 giant pandas lived in captivity outside China, in 26 zoos in 18 different countries, including Japan, Malaysia, United States, Mexico, France, Germany, Russia, and Finland.

In reality, pandas are a powerful diplomatic tool used by the Chinese government as a soft power influence. By entrusting other nations with its national treasures, China wants to take advantage of this resource to enhance its prestige worldwide, often with apparent strategic intent. The pattern is simple: whenever China wants to strengthen political ties, it offers a panda.

Several studies highlighted that many panda transactions involved the signature of major trade agreements as a diplomatic gesture aimed at expressing a desire to build a long-term trade relationship. For instance, panda loans in Canada, France, and Australia coincided with trade deals for uranium. Huan Huan and Yuan Zi arrived in France in 2012 on a 10-year loan from China until 2022 in the hope that it would further repair tensions and smooth relations between Paris and Beijing. More recently, China rushed to loan pandas to Malaysia and Singapore after the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement was sealed.

China also uses pandas to exert political pressure on countries. In 2005, one Taiwanese official declared: “The pandas are a trick, just like the Trojan horse. Pandas are cute, but they are meant to destroy Taiwan’s psychological defenses,” after China promised a pair of pandas to Taiwan. Although Taiwan has been governed independently from China since 1949, the mainland has been claiming the island as part of its territory. At first, Taiwan rejected the pandas, but two years later, the newly elected president reconsidered the offer and accepted the gift in a gesture to strengthen ties with Mainland China. Tuan Tuan (团团) and Yuan Yuan (圆圆) — whose combined names mean ‘reunion’ (‘团圆’) in Chinese — arrived in Taiwan in 2008. The names given to pandas often carry subtle political messages.

Unknowingly, pandas play politics. In 2013, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, stated, “there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.”

Lucile Guéguen


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