Whatever the state of US-China relations, panda diplomacy must end

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece on China’s panda diplomacy. Commenting on the departure of three pandas from the National Zoo in Washington and the return to China of pandas from other American zoos, I said pandas could still be sent to the US if the summit between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden went well.
It did. At a dinner party in his honour attended by business leaders, the Chinese president acknowledged the fondness of Americans, particularly children, for pandas. He said China would continue its cooperation with the US on panda conservation, a signal that pandas could return. “Pandas,” he added, “have long been envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.”

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.

In the last seven years, the US-China relationship has weathered trade and tech wars and the turbulence triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the American media, China is not portrayed as a cuddly panda. Those who favour a policy of engagement with China are disparaged as “ panda huggers” and have fallen silent. Conservative politicians prefer to censure, rather than embrace, China, which they see as a menace.
China’s panda diplomacy, deployed to ingratiate the country with the outside world and to soften foreign criticism, has produced mixed results. As a Post report noted last year, after 50 years of panda diplomacy, China’s softest power has met “the hard reality of US-China tensions”.
Yet the appeal of the pandas themselves has not been adulterated by the roller-coaster ride of US-China relations. I visited Washington’s National Zoo three decades ago to see Ling Ling and Xing Xing, who had arrived after president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. What impressed me the most were the displayed letters written by American children to the two bears. They were among the sweetest “love” letters I have ever read.


Washington National Zoo’s last giant pandas returned to China amid strained US-China ties

Washington National Zoo’s last giant pandas returned to China amid strained US-China ties

One of my students went all the way from Houston to see the pandas in San Diego, one task on her to-do list before her hospitalisation for cancer treatment. When Le Le, one of two pandas in Memphis Zoo died unexpectedly this year, the news devastated zoo staff members and many in the US. Although Le Le’s surviving companion, Ya Ya, looked emaciated due to old age and skin problems, the zoo management called them “two of the most spoiled animals on the planet”.
Today, Zoo Atlanta is the US’ only captive institution with four pandas. The departure of Ya Ya and the three pandas from the National Zoo lately gave rise to speculation that China’s “panda diplomacy” with the US was coming to an end.

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.

Admittedly, Chinese efforts have succeeded in stabilising and increasing the wild panda population. From some 1,114 individuals in the 1980s, the wild panda population has reached 1,864. In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature moved the panda from endangered to vulnerable in recognition of China’s efforts.

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.


‘Cuter in real life’: twin ‘treasure’ pandas charm public at name-reveal ceremony in South Korea

‘Cuter in real life’: twin ‘treasure’ pandas charm public at name-reveal ceremony in South Korea

As an exclusively Chinese species, the panda has become an unofficial emblem of China. Yet the use of the panda for state objectives was not the creation of the Communist Party government. In 1941, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, then China’s first lady, gave the US two pandas to thank it for its support during the war against Japan.

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.

Panda diplomacy is great, but all species need China-US climate cooperation

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.

Besides, China can pursue other, and perhaps no less effective, charm offensives such as outlawing the country’s dog meat trade. China was praised by the international community when it outlawed the ivory trade in 2018. The world will react similarly if dogs in China become legally protected as companion animals.

Peter J. Li, PhD is associate professor of East Asian politics and animal policy in China at the University of Houston-Downtown


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