Panda diplomacy

Panda diplomacy is China's use of giant pandas as diplomatic gifts to other countries. The practice existed as far back as the Tang dynasty,[1] when Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to Emperor Tenmu of Japan in 685.[2] The term "Panda Diplomacy" was first used in the Cold War.[3]

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Pandas in Chinese politics

The People's Republic of China used panda diplomacy in the 1950s and has become known in recent decades for this practice. Between the years of 1957 and 1983, 24 pandas were gifted to nine nations to make friends. This is considered "gifting" as there was no price tag attached to these 24 pandas. These nine nations included the Soviet Union, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (what would later be known as North Korea), the United States of America (due to President Nixon's visit), and the United Kingdom (due to Premier Edward Heath's visit).[3] This was when Mao Zedong was the Chinese communist chairman.[4] President Nixon went to China for a visit and Mao Zedong stated that they would send two pandas to a zoo found in America. In exchange for these pandas received by the Chinese, President Nixon returned the gift by gifting two musk oxen to the Chinese. This gift between China and the United States show a strong diplomatic relationship of each other.[5] The female panda, Ling-Ling and the male panda, Hsing-Hsing were given on 1972. Although there is a long history behind panda diplomacy, before these two pandas were gifted, for over twenty-years, there has not been a panda in the U.S.[3]

Upon the pandas' arrival in April 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon donated the pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where she welcomed them in an official ceremony. Over twenty thousand people visited the pandas the first day they were on display, and an estimated 1.1 million visitors came to see them the first year they were in the United States.[6] 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.[7] It was so successful that British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked for pandas for the United Kingdom during a visit to China in 1974. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching therefore arrived at the London Zoo a few weeks later.[6] The panda gifted to the UK would later be the logo's inspiration for the World Wildlife Fund.[3]

Chiang Mai Zoo is a zoo and aquarium that opened in 1977 in Thailand. It is located on Huay Kaew Road and is west of Chiang Mai University. Before it opened up as an official zoo for the public in 1977, it was an area where Harold Mason Young took care of injured animals. He kept the area open to the public so the community could see what he did to take care of the many animals. When the zoo opened up, it was the first commercial zoo in Thailand.[8]

Deng Xiaoping started the process of gift-loaning pandas in 1984, starting with China presenting two pandas to Los Angelos during the 1984 Olympic Games for $50,000 per month per panda. This practice ended in 1991 in the popular favor of long-term loans.[9] Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on ten-year loans. The standard loan terms include a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan be the property of the People's Republic of China. Since 1998, because of a World Wildlife Fund lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda only if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat. The gifting of two pandas to Hong Kong in 2007 was seen as outside of the spectrum of panda diplomacy.[9]

After the 2008 earthquake that made many facilities no longer functional, 60 panda required new housing, and most of them were giving to nations that either have trade agreements with China since 2009 or nations that supplied China with necessary resources. There is a strong connection of panda loans and countries supplying China with uranium.[3]

Pandas have become important diplomatic symbols, not only to China. In a visit by Hu Jintao to Japan in May 2008, China announced the loan of two pandas to Japan. The President was quoted as saying "Giant pandas are very popular among the Japanese, and they are a symbol of the friendly ties between Japan and China."[10] Actions that other countries take with pandas are often seen as laden with meaning. For example, British diplomats worried that a 1964 transfer of a panda from a London zoo to Moscow would worsen Sino-Soviet relations.[11] In January 2006, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was photographed hugging a 5-month-old panda cub during his visit to Sichuan province. The image was widely broadcast by the Chinese media and was purportedly interpreted as a sign that Zoellick supported better relations between China and the United States.[12]

On 16 April 2014, China had planned to send a pair of pandas named Fu Wa and Feng Yi to Malaysia to mark their 40-year diplomatic ties but were postponed following the MH370 tragedy.[13] The two pandas later arrived in Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 21 May 2014 and placed at the National Zoo of Malaysia.[14][15]

Recently, Finland agreed to care for two giant pandas. During the same visit, as per normal practise during state visits, Finland confirmed that it will abide by the One-China policy.[16] Two pandas Cai Tao and Hu Chun arrived in Jakarta in 2017 to be placed in Taman Safari in Bogor as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of China–Indonesia relations.[17] The most recent panda loan was on June 5, 2019 when Chinese President Xi Jinping gifted two giant pandas to Russia's Moscow Zoo on an official state visit as a "sign of respect and trust." The pandas, two-year old male Ru Yi and one-year old female Ding Ding, will reside in a newly-built pavilion and be on loan to the zoo for 15 years.[18]

In 2003, China sent Thailand two very popular pandas, Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui to the Chiang Mai Zoo. They have been living in Chiang Mai Zoo since then but in 2007 Chuang Chuang was put on a diet due to becoming obese. In September 2019, Chuang Chuang suddenly died which caused a lot of outrage. The public started to blame this incident on China's panda diplomacy. They thought sending giant animals abroad to other countries was no longer a good idea and was bad for the animals health. It could also make the population of the endangered animals they were sending decrease at a faster rate.[8]

Keeping pandas is very expensive. Beside the cost of the "rent" from China, obtaining enough bamboo is very expensive. The Edinburgh zoo spends $107,000 per year to feed its two pandas.[19] This caused the zoo to ask for bamboo donations, as well as for local gardeners to start growing bamboo in 2011.[20]

Copenhagen Zoo opened a panda enclosure in 2019 for two pandas on lease from China for 15 years with the price tag of $1 million annually. The enclosure itself cost $24 million, though it was privately funded. Eva Flyvholm, a member of Denmark's parliament for the Unity party, said in a statement that, "Denmark gets the pandas because we have dropped our criticism of the Chinese repression of Tibet, and because Chinese human rights violations aren’t being criticized so much." 40 new trade agreements with China were signed with the panda loan agreement in 2019.[21]

Offer of pandas to Taiwan

In 2005, Lien Chan, chairman of the Kuomintang, the then-opposition party in Taiwan, visited mainland China. As part of the talks between Lien Chan and the Communist Party of China (CPC), two pandas (later named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, meaning "reunion" in Mandarin) were offered as a gift to the people of Taiwan.

While the idea was popular with the Taiwanese public, it proved difficult with the Republic of China (ROC) government of Taiwan, then led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP supports Taiwanese independence and opposes unification with the People's Republic of China, and saw the gift of pandas as an attempt by the CPC to draw the ROC government into its "united front". While several zoos in Taiwan made bids to host the pandas, the ROC government raised objections, ostensibly on the grounds that pandas were not suited to the Taiwanese climate and that Taiwan did not have the expertise to rear pandas successfully. It was widely understood, however, that these were underlain by political considerations by the DPP-led government to maintain its distance from the PRC government.[22] Another technical issue is a dispute over the applicability of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In 1998, China offered the Republic of China two giant pandas in exchange for wartime peace. The PRC insisted that a transfer from mainland China to Taiwan was a domestic transfer, not subject to CITES, while the ROC government disputed this and would not accept the pandas without CITES procedures.[23] On March 11, 2006, the ROC formally rejected the offer, with President Chen Shui-bian explaining in his weekly newsletter, "A-bian (Chen's nickname) sincerely urges the Chinese leaders to leave the giant pandas in their natural habitat, because pandas brought up in cages or given as gifts will not be happy".[23]

Following a change of government in Taiwan, in July 2008, the ROC government led by the Kuomintang stated that it would accept the gift of two four-year-old giant pandas.[24] In December 2008, the government approved the import of pandas under the terms of "species of traditional herbal medicine".[25] Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan arrived at the Taipei Zoo later in the same month, making international news.

In response to the transfer, the CITES secretariat stated that the transfer of the two pandas was a matter of "internal or domestic trade", and so was not required to be reported to CITES.[26] The ROC quickly issued a rebuttal to the CITES statement and clarified that the procedures for the transfer followed closely a country-to-country transfer. The ROC also noted that such procedures would not be needed if it were an internal/domestic transfer.[27] The ROC further noted that Taiwan is not a CITES signatory and is therefore not obligated to report to the CITES Secretariat its acceptance of the two pandas.[28]

Other animals as diplomatic gifts

Internationally, other rare animals appear as diplomatic/political gifts as well. For example, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, five Chinese sturgeons, symbolising the five Olympic rings, were given by China's Central Government to Hong Kong.[29]

In 2009, the government of the Seychelles Islands announced its gift of a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and in appreciation of China's assisting the small insular nation with the expenses of participating in the Expo. The two tortoises will be actually kept in the Shanghai Zoo.[30]

The government of Mongolia has been gifting horses to visiting dignitaries. Those who have received Mongolia's horses as a gift from its government include the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye,[31] Vice President of India Mohammad Hamid Ansari,[32] Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi,[33] and the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.[34]

The Philippines plans to loan a pair of Philippine eagles to Singapore in 2019 for ten years as an effort to boost ties between the two countries. The Philippine government also considers the move as an "insurance policy" in a bid to protect the endangered species' population in an event an avian outbreak wipes out the indigenous population in the Philippines.[35]

Presenting animals as gifts to dignitaries is an ongoing ritual that dates back centuries. The Song of Roland demonstrates how common this practice was in that even this poem, so focused on scenes of battle, bravery, and chivalry made space to describe the allure and temptation of owning exotic animals.

See also


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  2. "Official book tells untold stories of the giant panda". Xinhua News Agency. February 21, 2019. Retrieved June 13, 2019 via China Daily.
  3. Buckingham, Kathleen Carmel; David, Jonathan Neil William; Jepson, Paul (September 2013). "ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEWS AND CASE STUDIES: Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft "Cuddly" Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation". Environmental Practice. 15 (3): 262–270. doi:10.1017/S1466046613000185. ISSN 1466-0466.
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  14. "Pandas arrive in Malaysia after MH370 delay". News24. May 21, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
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  16. "Panda-hosting Ähtäri Zoo losing money". Yle. May 10, 2018. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
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