The star of the Beijing Winter Olympics wasn’t an athlete: it was Bing Dwen Dwen, the spacesuit-clad panda mascot. It was deployed to cover the harsher political edges of the games, and was romping around on the ice at the closing gala.
Bing Dwen Dwen is only the latest example of China’s use of ‘panda diplomacy’, so successful over recent decades. The Chinese Communist party has long used them as envoys to potential partners.
A bill now wending its way through the US Congress strikes at the heart of panda diplomacy. If it passes, it will keep American-born giant panda cubs in the US, which would break China’s monopoly on these vulnerable animals. ‘We do need to think outside of the box in terms of dealing with [the CCP’s] aggression,’ said Nancy Mace, the Republican congresswoman who introduced the bill.
Mace’s bill marks the 50th anniversary of the most notorious example of panda diplomacy — in 1972 a pair of giant pandas were famously loaned to the National Zoo in Washington as a symbol of rapprochement between Mao’s China and Richard Nixon’s America. Three American zoos — the National Zoo in Washington, Zoo Atlanta and the Memphis Zoo – currently host pandas.
Every foreign zoo that hosts giant pandas must rent from China, which charges up to $1 million a year for a pair. Any cubs, wherever they are born, also belong to China, which can take them back whenever it sees fit. The giant pandas on loan are strategically placed around the world: those knowledgeable with the process have said Xi personally approves the loan of each panda.
There are around 2,000 giant pandas not in zoos, all in China. Critics have said Beijing is stripping pandas out of their natural forest homes, and are breeding them for politics.
Pandas are made for soft power — quite literally in the case of China’s panda production system. During one visit I made to a Chengdu facility, a smiling scientist told me that pandas trigger the same neural reaction in human beings as the sight of human babies.
More than 20 zoos around the world host the giant pandas. The rental costs are high, but so are the benefits, since for many zoos they are the biggest attraction – especially if they produce cubs. The politics can be tricky. When panda twins were born at Berlin zoo in 2019, local newspaper readers were asked to suggest names. Der Tagesspiegel reported that ‘Hong’ and ‘Kong’ were the most popular.
Instead, the pair was named Meng Xiang and Meng Yuan, which translate roughly as ‘long-awaited dream’ and ‘dream come true’. The zoo had to to ignore the newspaper if it wanted to keep them. Their parents had been presented by Xi to Angela Merkel in 2017, who called the giant pandas ‘special ambassadors’ between China and Germany.
The only giant pandas in the UK at present are at Edinburgh zoo. Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrived in 2011, at the beginning of what was dubbed the ‘golden era’ of UK-China relations. A year later, when the Dalai Lama visited Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon found themselves too busy to meet Tibet’s spiritual leader amid fears Beijing might take the pandas back. The pandas stayed, and last year the cash-strapped zoo agreed a two-year extension to its 10-year lease on the pandas at a reduced price of $500,000 a year.
Mace has certainly struck a raw nerve with her panda bill. It was a ‘shocking bill’, thundered the CCP’s Global Times in an editorial this week: ‘The cute and adorable image of the panda has captured people’s hearts. Could anyone with a normal mindset think of politics when seeing a panda?’ Which is, of course, precisely the point.
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