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December 16, 2013

News reports from a breeding center in Chengdu, China earlier today about the success of China’s conservation efforts. While the increasing numbers of panda births due to improved technologies and techniques was praised, U.S. news outlets made sure to focus on the cuter aspects of the story. A CNN piece opened with an anecdote about the adorable baby panda “Mumu” and descriptions of the Chengdu enclosure’s 14 cubs.  A video on the ABC website, on the other hand, focused primarily on visitors to the Chengdu center being able to pay to hug a baby panda.

The focus of these articles, and the fact it was reported in U.S. media outlets at all, highlights the American adoration of these creatures. This story was just the latest in a recent dense succession of panda related headlines. On December 15, for example, news that genetic testing showed three young pandas in an Atlanta zoo are actually female was not only reported in in Atlanta, but also in Washington, DC and San Francisco among other places.

The Washington, DC panda family has been an even bigger focus of American attentions. Interested observers, waited expectantly to find out if the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Mei Xiang was pregnant and then for her to give birth. The Smithsonian soon capitalized on this interest even more by setting up the Panda Cam so people could watch the newborn panda grow.

During October’s government shutdown, the Panda Cam received a disproportionately large amount of attention. Amidst congressional gridlock, furloughed federal workers, and closed national parks, the missing Panda Cam feed still made headlines. An article in The Atlantic pronounced the Panda Cam, “The Star of the Shutdown” with national news outlets like The New York Times, USA Today, and CBS all reporting on its shutdown and return.

Bao Bao: China’s Youngest Ambassador

Pandas are cute, cuddly creatures that are difficult not to like. But people’s fascination with pandas seems to take it a step further, elevating specific pandas to celebrity status. A country’s resident pandas become household names. Most Americans, for example, could probably tell you that the panda cup in Washington, DC was just named Bao Bao.

Bao Bao received his name during a large celebration when he turned 100 days old, in accordance with Chinese tradition. Before the December 1st celebration, over 123,000 people voted on what the panda’s name should be.

While there are currently 15 pandas in zoos around the U.S., the largest number in any country outside of China, a few cubs, Bao Bao is a national panda. She is the newest addition to a long tradition of pandas in the U.S. capital. After President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that reopened ties with China, Mao Zedong sent the pandas Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing to the U.S.

In an article published in the Washington Post, Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador the United States, wrote, “Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.”

Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan, the first ladies of the U.S. and China, posted videos welcoming Bao Bao and praising panda diplomacy. First Lady Peng Liyuan noted that the pandas “symbolize the loving care of the Chinese and American people and the friendship between them. Today’s 100-day celebration is yet another testament to the closeness the Chinese and Americans feel at heart.”

First Lady Michelle Obama said, “After decades of close collaboration with our Chinese partners, these remarkable animals stand as a symbol of the growing connections between our two countries. But the progress is far more than symbolic… So today, we are thrilled to welcome this little cub, a cub who exemplifies both the common bond between our nations and the bright future of this magnificent species.”

Phases of Panda Diplomacy

The origins of panda diplomacy go as far back as the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. In 658 AD, Chinese Empress Wu Zetian presented the Japanese emperor with two pandas. Modern panda diplomacy, however, can be grouped into two, and now possibly three, phases.

The first phase was from 1957-1982 where pandas were used as diplomatic gifts. China gave pandas to the Soviet Union, North Korea, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom among others. These pandas were given as national gifts to nations that were particularly active in establishing diplomatic ties and strategic alliances with China during this period.

The second phase began in 1982 when China officially ended the practice of gifting pandas. Instead, pandas could be loaned to other countries for 10-year periods. These expensive loans fit with the new market push of Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening up. Later in this period the emphasis of these loans shifted to conservation and scientific research, with the fees from the loans going to conservation efforts and the host zoos carrying out research.

A new study from Oxford University argues that panda diplomacy has now entered a third phase. In this phase, the decision to loan pandas to a country is linked to new bilateral trade deals, economic relations, or other such tangible ties. The article claims that the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the resulting damage to panda habitats caused the Chinese government to re-think their panda diplomacy model.

There are many recent examples of this proposed new version of panda diplomacy. France and Canada both received pandas in 2012 at around the same time as large uranium related trade deals. Just after Scotland received a panda in 2011 it signed trade deals for salmon and renewable energy with China. Uranium producing countries seem to be on the top of the panda list, with Australia, which has the largest uranium reserves, receiving pandas in 2009.

Panda Diplomacy Today

There is a long line of countries and zoos clamoring to receive China’s next panda loan. While pandas are a part of Chinese diplomacy efforts to improve soft power and ties with key countries and tend to accompany other advancements in bilateral relations, they are still loans.

There are approximately 50 pandas in zoos outside of China. China typically receives $1 million a year per pair of pandas for a 10 year lease. China also charges extra fines if a panda dies due to human error or when a panda cub born in a foreign zoo becomes six months old. In addition to these fees, all pandas born in foreign zoos still belong to the Chinese government and are returned to China when they turn four.

For the host zoos, there are even more added expenses. Caring for pandas is extremely costly. They require special attention and experts and have very specific dietary needs. Also, the zoos are required to have the appropriate expertise, facilities, and conservation and research goals. The added attention and visitors the zoos get due to their panda residents, however, generally makes up for these added costs.

First Lady Peng Liyuan said, “giant pandas are China’s national treasure and the love of the nation… they have captured the heart of the Chinese, Americans, and indeed people all over the world.”

The appeal of pandas is irrefutable, even if the reason is a bit elusive. Is it panda’s rarity that makes them so popular? Is it simply how adorable they are and their silly antics, such as the panda sneezing YouTube video that quickly went viral? Or is the popularity of pandas a testament to China’s successful branding of pandas and employment of panda diplomacy?

For more information on panda diplomacy, see the following news articles:

Washington Post (blog)– “Michelle Obama, Peng Liyuan Tout Panda Diplomacy

CNN – “Pandas to the rescue in U.S./China Tensions?

The Guardian– “David Cameron in China: will there be a panda on his plane home?

Environmental Reviews and Case Studies– “Diplomats and Refugees: Panda Diplomacy, Soft “Cuddly” Power, and the New Trajectory in Panda Conservation

CNN Money– “How China’s booming panda business works

China Daily– “Beyond ‘panda diplomacy’

BBC– “China’s new phase of panda diplomacy

Washington Post (Cui Tiankai)– “Peace through pandas

CNN– “Thanks to science, there are more baby pandas

Compiled and edited by Ariane Rosen