Cute, cuddly and politically convincing: The history of China’s favourite brand ambassador, the panda

A look back at China’s tradition of diplomatic gift-giving and the effort to protect the country’s most loved export. 

By: /
December 21, 2015
Tian Tian, a giant panda, prepares to eat a special Christmas panda cake crafted in the shape of a Christmas tree in the outdoor enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo ,Scotland December 17, 2014. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

‘Made in China’ is not always an attention grabber. But China’s most adored exports seem to have the ability to create, well, pandemonium (panda-mania, if you prefer).

Pandas were once everywhere in the Chinese interior, where bamboo, the staple of their diet, grows. Today an endangered species, there are only about 1860 left worldwide, 53 in captivity in zoos around the globe.

Pandas are a favourite for zoo-goers and are moneymakers for zoos worldwide. They are also used strategically by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as ‘brand ambassadors’ for the country.

This summer, on a cool day in the heart of Sichuan province, I found myself joining the throngs to see firsthand what the fuss is all about. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding leads the effort to save the Chinese giant panda and to keep a supply of China’s most sought after ambassadors available to perform their diplomatic missions. 

Before seeing the nursery, all tourists are first shown a video about the facility and its breeding program, in a rotation of English and Chinese viewings, giving the audience an appreciation of the difficulties giant pandas have procreating in captivity and the unique efforts necessary to expand the captive population.

The video concluded, curtains opened and we shuffled to a line in the summer sun that slowly snaked by tinted glass windows of the Research Base. While signs instructed us not to bang on the glass, adults and children were laughing, giggling, cooing and making faces as we viewed these tiny creatures – barely 100 grams. To the unknowing, they could have been two skinny bald mice with sprouts of white fur, still too young to have grown the distinctive panda fur pattern.

The adult pandas were outside, clear of their air-cooled enclosures, in a well-fenced natural habitat, most gnawing on their bamboo. Loud human shrieks could be heard as a panda was seen falling out of a tree. Sighs and scattered applause followed as the animal rolled, licked itself vigorously and staggered to its feet apparently unhurt.

Research is conducted world-wide to study panda reproduction, having been vastly expanded when births fell in the 1980s. Researchers hypothesized that reproductive “shortcomings” stemmed from insufficient opportunities for males and females to synchronize reproductively. In response, the Chengdu Research Base made structural changes and used a stepwise process to gradually introduce potential mates (a panda version of speed dating). By 2004, higher fertility rates indicated that the problems had been largely overcome.

Observing the giant pandas in close to their natural habitat at the Chengdu Research Base, one was reminded not only of their appeal in popular culture but also their role in diplomacy.

Panda diplomacy is not new. Empress Wu Zetian (625–705 AD in the Tang Dynasty) sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor. More recently, from 1958 to 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries. The PRC gift of two pandas to the United States in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China is perhaps the best remembered. The pandas were wildly popular and China's gift was seen as an enormous diplomatic success, evidence of China's eagerness to establish official relations with the U.S.

The United Kingdom received a pair in 1974, and the Chinese gave Tokyo a panda in 1992, in exchange for one Japan had bred in captivity. The April 2008 death of Ling Ling at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo left Japan in mourning. Visitors to the zoo wept; others prayed and wrote notes to his memory. In a visit by President Hu Jintao to Japan in May 2008, China announced the loan of two pandas to Japan. Speculation reached a fever pitch prior to the announcement, and President Hu’s response was seen as key signal about improving ties.

Taiwan received two giant pandas as a Christmas present in 2008. “The pandas take [the] mainland people’s blessing to Taiwan and will sow the seeds of peace, unity and fraternal love there,” said the PRC in a farewell ceremony. Taiwan's acceptance followed a series of rejected offers. In 1998, China offered Taiwan two giant pandas in exchange for wartime peace, but PRC insisted that they be registered as a domestic transfer. In 2006, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-ban urged China to leave the "Trojan" giant pandas in their natural habitat, because "pandas brought up in cages or given as gifts will not be happy." Compromise terms were reached, and the Christmas 2008 arrival of the giant pandas was seen as a barometer of improved PRC-Taiwan relations, and brought Christmas cheer to panda lovers of the island nation.

Henry Nicholls, author of The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal, observed upon the arrival of a pair of pandas at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011 that the positive atmosphere generated by panda diplomacy “creates the perfect setting for subsequent trade negotiations.”

Since 1984, China has offered pandas to other nations only on ten-year loans. The terms include a fee of up to US$1 million per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan be the property of the PRC. In 2008, the Sichuan earthquake devastated the main panda conservation centre, which meant many pandas needed re-homing. A recent academic study, Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft ‘Cuddly’ Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation, found that since that earthquake, panda loans increasingly came to symbolize China's willingness to build guanxi, or “deep trade relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, loyalty, and longevity.”

Notable is the correlation of guanxi loan deals with nations supplying resources and technologies to China in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in panda habitat. As repairs are completed at the earthquake-damaged Wolong Breeding Center, the study predicted that breeding and panda diplomacy will increase and that “panda conservation, more than ever, will be the outcome of a complex, dynamic interplay among politics, markets, and conservation science.”

Canada first secured a loan of pandas in 1985 when Qinn Qinn and Sha Yan visited the Toronto Zoo for three months. Wei Lun and Xi Xi were on loan during the Calgary Olympics in 1988. More recently, Canada obtained two pandas on loan after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s February 2012 visit to China. Upon their arrival in 2013, they were scheduled to stay five years each at the Toronto then the Calgary zoo. While heralded at the time as a victory for diplomacy and warming Chinese-Canadian relations, this may have also reflected a willingness of the part of the Toronto Zoo and its supporters to pay the required price. 

Canada’s then-ruling Conservative Party, reflecting this country’s panda-mania and eagerness to engage in panda diplomacy, issued a press release during the recent election campaign upon news of the impending birth of the baby pandas: “A re-elected Conservative government will set a target of doubling Canada’s panda population by 2016.” Toronto Zoo’s Er Shun successfully had her twins (thanks to artificial insemination), who are by all accounts healthy and growing.

Foreign policy observers will be busy carefully studying the details of Chinese statements to divine shifting winds in Chinese-Canadian relations in any decision about the baby pandas. Nonetheless, keeping Canada’s panda population at these historically high levels (four) will likely require a new zoo fundraising campaign as well as closer trade and technology co-operation. Toronto Zoo’s breeding success certainly won’t hurt our chances though.