Not so long ago, the Chinese panda bears living abroad, mainly in the United States (US), strongly captivated our attention. The panda bears occupied most headlines in major news outlets and were even the subject of various popular TV shows, such as Madame Secretary or Saturday Night Live, and we, of course, did not mind getting to watch an adorable video of these bears. Their vast media presence was due to a big change in China’s panda diplomacy towards the US. Panda diplomacy is a long-employed diplomatic practice used by China to showcase friendly (or the end of such) relations with other countries. This article will explore the origins of panda diplomacy and the role that pandas have and still play in international politics.

How did panda diplomacy start?

It’s no secret that US-China relations are tense, and it might be easy to assume that they have been that way for a long time. While this conclusion is not untrue, there was a period when friendship seemed a possibility. During the Cold War, in the 1970s, the US adopted a foreign policy of detente (reduced tensions) towards certain countries within the communist block, especially China. This Sino-American detente was primarily marked by President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, after which, China’s panda diplomacy towards the West began. 

During the trip and the days coming afterwards, both President Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong spoke about the bright future in Sino-American relations and often referred to the newly formed “bridges” towards unity between their states. This is particularly evident in the Shanghai Communique they drafted during their meetings, where they agreed on the continuous collaboration and exchange of people, information and ideas in the fields of science, arts and sports.

During the trip, First Lady Pat Nixon was taken to a zoo in Beijing. She later told the Chinese premier that she had fallen in love with their Chinese pandas. After this, China included the fluffy animals in the many exchanges they conducted with the US, adding on to the various symbols and “bridges” to unity.

Importance of the first panda exchange

As Ambassador Barbara Bodine, a diplomacy professor at Georgetown University, explains the first two pandas that arrived in the US in 1972 symbolised the end of Mao’s cultural revolution, and the “opening up” of China to the West. The arrival of these two pandas, Lin-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, also showed that “the exchange of ideas, people and culture would begin between China and the US”. 

Bodine further explains the power that panda diplomacy has as a means to communicate with foreign publics. She points out that, as a government, it is very hard to “speak directly to the public of another country, especially if it wants to impact public perceptions of itself”, but that pandas, who are perceived as cute and friendly, are a great way for China to relate with the American people. The former US ambassador goes on to say that, since “diplomacy is about people and relationship-building” panda diplomacy certainly is effective as it can strongly “impact people’s perception of the gifting country”. Finally, both Bodine and President Xi Jinping summarize the exchange of pandas as “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American people”, a meaning that still prevails today.

Situation today

To this day, China continues its practice of panda diplomacy, having sent pandas to over 20 different countries since they first arrived in the US. These pandas are still sent to symbolize China’s friendships and alliances with different countries. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that the export of pandas is strongly correlated with China’s signings of trade and security deals with receiving countries

Today, however, pandas are not just gifted but are actually sent through a loan system. This began due to concerns and critiques based on the pandas’ position as an endangered species. Through these loans, China and zoos in the receiving countries agree on a limited number of years that the panda will live abroad. During those years, the zoos must pay $1 million US Dollars a year for each panda and an extra $400,000 in case a baby is born. Despite this economic gain, the main importance for China in the loan system is that it never loses ownership of the pandas, meaning that it can always claim them back.

Lately, we have seen China use the reclamation of pandas as a diplomatic tool to pressure nations which it has tensions with. As the journalist Dara Lind explains, “China considers pandas as a kind of another arm of diplomacy in the same way that, in the event of a diplomatic spat, one country might recall its ambassador or impose economic sanctions”. We have seen various examples of China doing this, such as when it delayed its delivery of pandas to Malaysia as a result of their disappointment in the government’s reaction to the disappearance of a Malaysian plane carrying Chinese passengers in 2014. We also saw it in 2009 when China expressed its desire to reclaim a panda from the US following a meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, a long-time critic of China. While, no “sane” country would base their foreign policy solely on the promise of having a few pandas, as Bodine explains, losing pandas certainly has a symbolic effect on their relations with China and an effect on that country’s public, with many being left sad or unsatisfied with their government’s position.

This past month we saw yet another example of this practice by China as it flew back three more pandas from the US. While zoo officials claim that this event only took place as a result of their loans expiring and was definitely not political, politicians and scholars disagree. While it is true that the loans for the pandas had expired, politicians like Stephen A. Orlins (President of the National Committee on US-China Relations) believe that it is because of political implications that China decided not to extend the loans and, with them, the symbol of friendship between both countries. Many link this decision to the growing tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, emissions commitments and the recent meeting between President Biden and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Furthermore, China is using pandas to fuel the growing anti-American and pro-Russian sentiment amongst its people. Recently, videos of Yaya, a skinny and seemingly malnourished panda living in the Tenessee Zoo, have become viral. While scientists have discovered that Yaya looks unhealthy due to a genetic disease that doesn’t affect her quality of life nor is a consequence of the treatment she has received, China has purposefully blocked this information from its citizens. In fact, it has spread videos of “happy and healthy” pandas living in Russia to contrast those of Yaya. As a result, the Chinese public’s view towards the US and Russia have changed. This was confirmed by a CNN correspondent who interviewed Chinese visitors at a zoo, all of which reaffirmed that pandas are mistreated in the US and that, since Russia and China are friends, pandas are happy there.

While panda diplomacy with the US began as a token of friendship at a time when both governments were working on reducing tensions between them, they have now taken a more negative turn. Panda diplomacy has recently been used to raise animosity towards the US within China and highlight the various tensions between these two world powers. However, in his recent meeting with President Biden in San Francisco Xi Jinping left the door open for an eventual return of pandas to the US. This means that there might be some hope for further reducing Sino-American tensions and seeing the beloved fur balls in the US once more.

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz, via Pexels