Pandas are no ordinary wild animal. Since 1972, when premier Zhou Enlai sent two pandas to the US, Americans have been overwhelmed by the cuteness of this rare and China-exclusive species. Yet, regardless of the presence of pandas in the US, bilateral relations have experienced highs and lows.
Many have mixed feelings about the panda departures. Pandas returning to China are not going to the wild since they are captive-bred and thus lack the ability to survive outside a controlled environment. Whether they live in captivity in the US or in their native country makes no difference.
But continuing the panda leasing programme in the name of conservation will only help sustain China’s captive breeding programme, which has been criticised at home and overseas. Despite its pronounced objective of returning captive-bred pandas to the wild, China has had very limited success.
Nevertheless, there remains a lot that China can do to protect pandas in the wild. Panda habitats are scattered largely across three provinces and very fragmented, preventing contact of pandas in different isolated terrains. Connecting these terrains, reducing human activity, improving vegetation and protecting the ecosystem are fundamental to panda protection.
The two pandas, cuddly and unthreatening, symbolised in the US wartime narrative the 400 million peace-loving Chinese vis-à-vis the savage and aggressive Japanese. China has, since the 1950s, sent pandas as a state gift or a leased exhibit to 17 other countries as a charm offensive. To be fair to the Chinese government, its panda diplomacy would not have happened if the recipient countries had been able to resist the offer.
Although the view that panda diplomacy has sinister and ulterior motives is not necessarily convincing, it is time all countries stop using wild animals as state gifts or leased exhibits. China’s panda diplomacy has fulfilled its historical mission. Protecting wildlife and their habitats is a conservation approach that has lasting ecological significance.
Peter J. Li, PhD is associate professor of East Asian politics and animal policy in China at the University of Houston-Downtown