Let’s just face it: panda diplomacy works. It’s the softest of soft power and China has no qualms exploiting that.
Apparently China’s decision to share the adorableness that is the giant panda with zoos across the globe is a strategic calculation to garner the world’s goodwill. The Chinese government hopes that the warm fuzzy feelings toward pandas transfers to positive goodwill toward China as well. Well, China, mission accomplished. There’s not a whole lot that the residents of Washington, D.C. can agree on, but Republicans and Democrats alike are panda crazy for the National Zoo’s new panda cub, born in August earlier this year.
Origins of Panda Diplomacy
Panda Diplomacy, as with most practices in China, is nothing new. The country has used giant pandas as gifts to other countries since Empress Wu Zetian and the Tang Dynasty. In the 1950s, the practice returned, and over the next thirty years the People’s Republic of China gifted 23 pandas to nine countries.
The United States received its first two pandas in April 1972 following President Nixon’s historic visit to China. These pandas were gifts, symbolizing a new, positive relationship between the two countries. (In return, the United States gave China musk oxen—apparently we’re horrible reciprocating gift givers). The pandas were almost named Ping and Pong as an homage to the two nations’ first public diplomacy engagement, Ping Pong Diplomacy, but ultimately named Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing.
Modern Panda Diplomacy
According to a recent article by Business Insider, the second era of Panda Diplomacy focused less on friendships and more on economics. Following Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, gifts became financial transactions. In 2000, America negotiated a deal with China to replace their original pandas, which died in the late 1990s. In return for a 10-year loan of two pandas, Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, America paid $18 million dollars (though half is required to fund panda conservation efforts).
According to a new study done by Oxford University, in the emerging third era, panda loans are now associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources—as Scotland recently did—or symbolize China’s attempts to diffuse hostile political relations—like it did with Taiwan with mild success.
In 2005, the first panda cub was born in Washington, D.C. The cub was officially named Tai Shan, but locals affectionately called the panda ‘Butterstick’ after a zoo worker described him as being about the size of a stick of butter when he was born. This panda cub caused a pandemonium (pun absolutely intended) with tickets selling out, the zoo panda live video stream crashing, and panda products flying off the shelf. But what China gives, it can also take away: China recalled Tai Shan and another U.S.-born panda cub (Mei Lian from the Atlanta zoo) in 2010, two days after President Barack Obama decided to meet the Dalai Lama against the wishes of the Chinese government.
What’s in a name?
Even choosing a name for a panda is an act of diplomatic theater. The American public gets to choose the name for the newest member of the National Zoo’s panda family from five options submitted by prestigious representatives. The U.S. Ambassador to China, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, National Zoo giant panda keepers in D.C., the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Center giant panda keepers in China, and the Friends of the National Zoo submitted one option each.
Update: Bao Bao wins!
The results of panda diplomacy? Pretty impressive. In addition to diplomatic and economic relationships between the two countries, Chinese and American scientists benefit. Scientists collaborate by studying pandas together: their mating behavior, their environment and, ultimately, the survival of an endangered species, all of which forges strong strategic partnerships and contributes to worldwide conservation efforts.
Everybody loves a panda. They’re cute and cuddly, and as a result China’s laughing all the way to the bank and stockpiling hordes of soft power.
photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo