Pandas in Politics: A Special Chinese Diplomacy Explained

By: Leo Polwein

President Trump’s November visit to China was aptly described as a “state visit plus” full of fanfare and flattery, interpreted by experts as a sign that Beijing aimed at using flattery as a diplomatic tool in order to sway President Trump. This, however, was not the first time that the Chinese government has resorted to flattery as a diplomatic tool. Most notably, China has been famous for its “panda diplomacy.” For more than 50 years, China gave its unofficial national mascot to friendly nations in order to help nurture relationships with these countries.

Pandas are only native to China and are often seen as the ideal zoo animals. Even in an age where many people do not agree with keeping wild animals in captivity, it is not seen as cruel to keep a sedate animal such as the panda in a zoo. Moreover, pandas are extremely popular animals due to their resemblance to human infants. Their fat cheeks, snub noses, and big eyes trigger the same reactions in our brains as do babies.

China today is undoubtedly a global superpower: they have the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest military budget. Nevertheless, in terms of “soft power” – the ability to make other countries like you, or do what you want without coercion and bribes –  China is still very weak. This is something that China has tried to change in the recent years. The Chinese state media sees pandas as one of President Xi’s most powerful weapons when it comes to building soft power. Likewise, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye states “For China, pandas are the equivalent of the British royal family, like the Royals, they are a terrific asset because you can put them up on display. You trot them around the world and they add an enormous amount to the country’s soft power.”

Pandas, however, were not always used as a mean to expand soft power. Under Mao, they were mostly used as goodwill gifts to allies like North Korea. In 1984, after pandas were put on the list of endangered species, pandas were often handed out to Western zoos in highly lucrative short-term loans. This purely commercial era of panda diplomacy ended when the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the short-term import of pandas. As a result, long-term loans of pandas, with a large share of the loan fees going to conservation efforts, became the new method of panda diplomacy. Nevertheless, in the last few years, the focus has moved away from conservation and back to the political symbolism of the panda. In other words, panda diplomacy became a driver for soft power.

Since the middle of 2015, there has been a surge in panda emissaries corresponding with  President Xi’s goal of increasing Chinese soft power. In addition to increasing soft power, panda diplomacy also has a practical side: many of the most recent loans have concurred together with major trade deals between China and the receiving country. Nevertheless, not all panda diplomacy is used for goodwill as it is also used as punishment. In 2010, after Beijing warned President Obama not to meet the Dalai Lama, two panda cubs born in the US were taken back to China.

Notwithstanding, it remains questionable if China will be able to further increase its soft power with the help of panda diplomacy. The process of receiving a Panda is extremely expensive and burdensome, and the conservation benefits are dubious as Chinese authorities have not been successful at reintroducing captive pandas into the wild. Additionally, as of now, there are many Pandas outside of China and thus they have lost the uniqueness they once had. These factors could contribute to fewer countries desiring to negotiate for pandas or accept them as gifts based on Beijing’s terms.

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