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HomeWorldWhat is China’s panda diplomacy? | Explained

What is China’s panda diplomacy? | Explained

File photo: Pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing move around in their enclosure at the National Zoo in Washington on one of the days they spent together, on May 6, 1975.
| Photo Credit: AP Photo

The story so far: China may be renewing its panda diplomacy project as the country is planning to loan the San Diego Zoo a pair of giant pandas, The Associated Press reported on Thursday. The China Wildlife Conservation Authority has signed cooperation agreements with San Diego and Madrid, Spain for the same, and is also in talks with zoos in Washington D.C. and Vienna, Austria, the report added, quoting China’s Xinhua News Agency.

If permits are approved, the pandas could arrive at the San Diego Zoo by the end of summer, the zoo officials told AP.

What is panda diplomacy?

Giant pandas are native to central China, particularly the Yangtze River basin. The Chinese government gifts or loans these endemic pandas to other countries as a symbol of friendship or soft diplomacy, hence leading to the phrase “panda diplomacy”.

How did panda diplomacy become popular?

Although panda diplomacy essentially picked up in the mid-to-late 20th century, some experts believe that a version of it existed as early as during the Tang Dynasty that ruled between 7th and 10th century. Records from the dynasty suggest that it presented two bears (believed to be pandas back then) to the Japanese court during Empress Wu Zetian’s rule, The Guardian reported.

There are multiple records of China gifting or donating pandas to countries like the U.S., the U.K., France, and Japan, but 1972 is often believed to be the start of modern panda diplomacy when, under Mao Zedong’s rule, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai gifted to giant pandas to America following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s state visit. According to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C., also the home of the two giant pandas, the pair Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) arrived on April 16, 1972.

China stopped gifting pandas in early 1980s, and instead started loaning them at a fee of around $1 million per year. Conditions to lend pandas may also include other requirements, like building facilities for their care and agreements to return offspring to China.

More than just soft diplomacy?

In 2013, the University of Oxford conducted a study which concluded that deals under panda diplomacy could “herald environmental implications over the long term.” They cited the example of Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland which received its first pair of pandas in December 2011. This deal was overseen by China’s deputy premier while negotiating contracts valued at £2.6 billion across a range of sectors like petrochemical and renewable energy technology, salmon meat, and Land Rovers.

The study also noted that panda deals with Canada, France, and Australia coincided with these countries’ uranium deals and contracts with China.

What next?

In November 2023, after Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden met for the first time in a year, Mr. Xi hinted that his country could start sending pandas to the U.S. again.

“We’re very excited and hopeful,” Megan Owen, member of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and vice president of Wildlife Conservation Science, told AP. “They’ve expressed a tremendous amount of enthusiasm to re-initiate panda cooperation starting with the San Diego Zoo.”

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