Panda politics and why China’s adorable ambassadors are an important diplomatic tool – China power
Giant pandas are unique to China and have won hearts around the world, but for Beijing the animals are much more than adorable bundles of fluff.
- Pandas are generally on loan from China for 10 years at an annual rate of $US1 million
- Countries which rent pandas from China are also some of its top trading partners
- Cubs born in foreign zoos need to return to China before they turn four
China’s unofficial mascots have long been part of the country’s diplomatic strategies and are used by its leaders to shape the country’s image as a benevolent superpower.
While giant pandas had once been gifted by the Chinese Government to countries as a token of goodwill and friendship before 1982, their dwindling numbers has led to the current on-loan policy.
China typically loans pandas to other countries for $US1 million a year. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
Pandas are now generally loaned in pairs over a 10-year period at a staggering annual rate of about $US1 million ($1.39 million) — much of which goes towards conservation efforts.
And that doesn’t even include the costly feed, maintenance and special enclosure needed to take care of one.
China also reportedly charges a one-time fee of $US400,000 ($563,600) per cub born at a foreign zoo.
In recent decades the giant panda, which is the logo of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has also become synonymous with wildlife conservation and pandas themselves have developed into a booming industry.
How does a country get pandas?
Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony for pandas Meng Meng and Jiao Qing at a zoo in Berlin. (Reuters: Axel Schmidt)
It’s no accident that countries which have pandas, including the United States, Japan, and South Korea, are also some of China’s top trading partners.
According to the latest figures from China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, there are currently 58 pandas on loan to 17 countries — the latest recipient was Finland which received a pair of pandas in January.
Richard McGregor from the Lowy Institute told the ABC that giant pandas were “a diplomatic tool, bestowed on deserving partners as a gesture of friendship”.
He said pandas also benefited the receiving zoos as they serve as drawcards for visitors.
The countries with pandas — including the United States, Japan, and South Korea — are also some of China’s top trading partners. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
An Oxford University study in 2013, published in the journal of Environmental Practice, found that panda loans were granted to countries which have signed free trade agreements with China, or to nations supplying China with natural resources and advanced technologies.
For example, Australia’s Adelaide Zoo secured its panda loan for Wang Wang and Fu Ni shortly after agreeing to supply uranium to China in 2006.
Former foreign minister Alexander Downer, from South Australia, brokered the deal which was welcomed by then prime minister John Howard.
“It’s important when you’re talking about billions of dollars of resource contracts and you’re talking about tens of thousands of students,” Mr Howard said.
“It’s also important to find in the relationship, the warmth and exhilaration that can come from the temporary residence of such lovely creatures.”
But while there has been a flurry of panda leasing in recent decades, the practice dates back to the seventh century when a Chinese empress sent two pandas to Japan.
Perhaps one the most famous examples of panda diplomacy was in 1972, when China delivered Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing to Washington DC’s National Zoo after former US president Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing.
The two pandas were considered a symbol of normalised China-US diplomatic relations.
But what China gives, it can also take away.
Two US-born panda cubs, which were due to be returned anyway, were put on a plane to China from the US just two days after tensions rose over a planned meeting between former president Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama in 2010.
Why are pandas on a loan basis?
One curious cub makes a clumsy escape off the stage, landing on its head in Chengdu, China. (Reuters)
Not only do pandas around the world belong to China, but cubs born abroad also have to be returned to the country before they turn four for a breeding program.
While giant pandas are no longer an endangered species, the animal’s brief window of fertility and limited diet of bamboo make them very vulnerable.
Simone Clarke, executive director of Australia and New Zealand for World Animal Protection, said there were fewer than 2,000 giant pandas left in the mountains of western China.
“Through conservation and captive breeding, the Chinese Government has made great efforts to bring the giant panda population back from the brink,” he said.
“However, the needs of wild animals can only be fully met in the wild — where they belong.
“So we’d encourage the Chinese Government to increase wild panda populations by prioritising the protection and expansion of their natural habitat.”
According to the state-owned China Daily newspaper, 70 per cent of the $US1 million loan fee goes directly towards the protection of natural habitats in China, while another 20 per cent supports the Chengdu Panda Base’s research into improving breeding success.
Are panda names significant?
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, said the names given to pandas have “symbolic importance”.
He pointed to the names of the two giant pandas given to Taiwan in 2008 — Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan — which combined mean reunion in Chinese.
Professor Brown said it could be seen as “an expression of [China’s] desire to be reunited one day”.
The names, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, were chosen after an unofficial public poll of more than 100 million people in mainland China and the results were revealed live on national television during the 2006 CCTV New Year’s Gala.
The pandas were initially rejected by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, but the decision was reversed after Taiwan’s nationalist Kuomintang party was elected.
In 1957, China also gifted two pandas to the Soviet Union called Ping Ping and An An — which together means peace in Chinese — in 1957 and 1959 respectively.
Other names are more generic. For example, a baby panda born in Japan last year was called Xiang Xiang, or fragrance.
Do pandas really serve as propaganda?
Fu Ni, pictured, and Wang Wang were loaned to Adelaide Zoo in 2009. (AAP: Zoos South Australia)
There’s never a shortage of cuteness with state-owned media regularly pumping out videos and pictures of pandas stumbling over themselves and munching on bamboo.
But more than just being cute and a symbol of China, Professor Brown said the animals also helped to promote the idea that China is a “conservation country”.
Georgia Grice, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China appeared to use pandas to improve their image in other countries.
While Chinese culture was historically associated with powerful imageries of dragons, she said there had been a “very stark transition” to “fluffy, cute and non-threatening” pandas.
She said it was also interesting to see an increase in the use of panda imagery in line with the rise of China’s economy and its political engagement with the West in 1990s.
“I think that pandas are taken to a different level by China and by the international media — where it has just become this phenomenon in itself,” she said.
“[In Chengdu], the entire city is just flooded with panda tea cups and flower pots, and aprons and baking wear — it’s quite insane how popular the imagery is, and where it had just become its own industry.”