Panda diplomacy

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U.S. First Lady Pat Nixon viewing the Beijing Zoo panda exhibit in February 1972
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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]

Pandas in Chinese politics[edit]

The People's Republic of China used panda diplomacy in the 1950s and has become known in recent decades for this practice. From 1958 to 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries.[3] One highlight of panda diplomacy was the Chinese government's gift of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the United States in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China[4] (President Nixon reciprocated by sending back a pair of muskoxen). 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[3]

By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used purely as agents of diplomacy. 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.

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."[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] The two pandas later arrived in Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 21 May 2014 and placed at the National Zoo of Malaysia.[9][10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

Offer of pandas to Taiwan[edit]

Giant panda at the Taipei Zoo

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.[14] 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.[15] 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".[15]

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.[16] In December 2008, the government approved the import of pandas under the terms of "species of traditional herbal medicine".[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20]

Other animals as diplomatic gifts[edit]

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.[21]

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.[22]

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,[23] Vice President of India Mohammad Hamid Ansari,[24] Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi,[25] and the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.[26]

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.[27]

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[edit]


  1. ^ "The giant panda is on a bit of a roll". The Economist. September 16, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  2. ^ "Official book tells untold stories of the giant panda". Xinhua News Agency. February 21, 2019. Retrieved June 13, 2019 – via China Daily.
  3. ^ a b c Magnier, Mark (March 21, 2006). "Attack of the Pandas". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  4. ^ a b Byron, Jimmy (February 1, 2011). "Pat Nixon and Panda Diplomacy". The Richard Nixon Foundation. Archived from the original on July 20, 2011.
  5. ^ Hasegawa, Kyoko (May 7, 2008). "Chinese leader hails warming with Japan on rare visit". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  6. ^ McGeown, Kate (May 3, 2005). "China's panda ambassadors". BBC News. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  7. ^ Cody, Edward (January 26, 2006). "U.S. Envoy Engages in Panda Diplomacy". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  8. ^ "China delays sending pandas to Malaysia out of respect for MH370 families". Associated Press. April 11, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2019 – via Global News.
  9. ^ "Pandas arrive in Malaysia after MH370 delay". News24. May 21, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  10. ^ "Pandas arrive in Zoo Negara". The Star. May 21, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  11. ^ "Panda-hosting Ähtäri Zoo losing money". Yle. May 10, 2018. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  12. ^ "Indonesian zoo welcomes new arrivals thanks to China's latest act of 'panda diplomacy'". Agence France-Presse. September 28, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2019 – via South China Morning Post.
  13. ^ "'They make you smile': Putin & Xi go full panda diplomacy at Moscow Zoo (PHOTO, VIDEO)". RT. June 5, 2019. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  14. ^ Hogg, Chris (January 9, 2006). "Taiwan 'unlikely' to want pandas". BBC News. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  15. ^ a b Spencer, Richard (March 24, 2006). "We're not wild about your pandas, China told". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  16. ^ Macartney, Jane (July 4, 2008). "Comment: Where airlines go, panda diplomacy may follow". The Times.[dead link]
  17. ^ "SEF rejects CITES' interpretation of 'domestic transfer' of pandas". Taiwan News. December 24, 2008. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  18. ^ "PANDA DIPLOMACY: CITES secretary says panda transport need not be reported". Taipei Times. December 24, 2008. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  19. ^ "Panda delivery not internal/domestic transfer: president". Central News Agency. December 28, 2008. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  20. ^ Ko, Shu-ling (December 25, 2008). "PANDA DIPLOMACY: Use of 'domestic' by CITES secretariat was wrong: MAC". Taipei Times. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  21. ^ Han, Pliny, ed. (June 20, 2008). ""Living fossil of fish" Chinese sturgeons debut in HK". Xinhua News Agency. Archived from the original on June 28, 2008.
  22. ^ "Seychelles presents giant tortoises to organizer". Archived from the original on July 8, 2011 – via
  23. ^ "Park receives gift horse from Mongolian president". Yonhap News Agency. July 17, 2016. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  24. ^ Joseph, Anil K (July 15, 2016). "Mongolian President gifts horse to Ansari". Press Trust of India. Retrieved June 13, 2019 – via India Today.
  25. ^ Mohan, Vishwa (May 28, 2015). "Why PM Modi left 'Kanthaka' in Mongolia". Times News Network. Retrieved June 13, 2019 – via The Times of India.
  26. ^ Londoño, Ernesto (April 10, 2014). "Hagel gets a horse from Mongolian hosts as he wraps up Asia trip". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  27. ^ Enano, Jhesset O. (May 21, 2019). "2 Philippine eagles to fly in Singapore under wildlife loan deal". Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved June 13, 2019.

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