Giant pandas are unique to China and have captured hearts around the world, but for Beijing, animals are more than adorable bundles of plush.
- Pandas are typically on loan from China for 10 years at an annual rate of US $ 1 million
- Countries that rent pandas from China are also among its main trading partners
- Cubs born in foreign zoos must return to China before age four
China’s unofficial mascots have long been a part of the country’s diplomatic strategies and are used by its leaders to shape the country’s image as a benevolent superpower.
While giant pandas were once offered by the Chinese government to countries as a token of goodwill and friendship before 1982, their decreasing number has led to the current lending policy.
Pandas are now typically loaned out in pairs over a 10-year period at a staggering annual rate of around US $ 1 million ($ 1.39 million) – much of which goes to conservation efforts.
And that doesn’t even include the expensive power supply, maintenance, and the special enclosure needed to take care of it.
China has also reportedly charged a one-time fee of US $ 400,000 ($ 563,600) per cub born in a foreign zoo.
In recent decades, the giant panda, which is the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has also become synonymous with wildlife conservation and the pandas themselves have become a booming industry.
How does a country get pandas?
It is no coincidence that countries that have pandas, including the United States, Japan and South Korea, are also among China’s top trading partners.
According to the latest figures from China’s Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, there are currently 58 pandas on loan from 17 countries – the latest beneficiary was Finland which received a pair of pandas in January.
Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute told the ABC that giant pandas were “a diplomatic tool, given to deserving partners as a sign of friendship.”
He said pandas have also benefited host zoos as they serve as visiting cards for visitors.
a A 2013 study from the University of Oxford, published in the journal Environmental Practice, found that panda loans were given to countries that signed free trade agreements. with China, or to countries that provide China with natural resources and advanced technologies.
For example, the Adelaide Zoo in Australia obtained its panda loan for Wang Wang and Fu Ni shortly after agreeing to supply uranium to China in 2006.
Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer of South Australia negotiated the deal which was welcomed by then Prime Minister John Howard.
“It is also important to find in the relationship, the warmth and the exhilaration that can come from the temporary residence of these adorable creatures.”
But while there has been a wave of panda rentals in recent decades, the practice dates back to the 7th century when a Chinese empress sent two pandas to Japan.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of panda diplomacy was in 1972, when China delivered Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing to the Washington DC National Zoo after former US President Richard Nixon visited Beijing.
The two pandas were seen as a symbol of normalized Sino-US diplomatic relations.
But what China gives, it can also take away.
Two US-born baby pandas, who were due to be returned anyway, boarded a plane from the US to China just two days after tensions rose over a scheduled meeting between the former president Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama in 2010.
Why are pandas loaned out?
Not only do pandas around the world belong to China, but cubs born abroad must also be returned to the country before they are four years old for a breeding program.
While giant pandas are no longer an endangered species, the animal’s brief window of fertility and its limited bamboo diet makes them very vulnerable.
Simone Clarke, Australia and New Zealand executive director for World Animal Protection, said fewer than 2,000 giant pandas remain in the mountains of western China.
“Through conservation and captive breeding, the Chinese government has gone to great lengths to bring the giant panda population back to the brink,” he said.
“We therefore encourage the Chinese government to increase wild panda populations by prioritizing the protection and expansion of their natural habitat.”
According to the state-owned China Daily newspaper, 70 percent of the $ 1 million loan fee goes directly to protecting natural habitats in China, while 20 percent supports the Chengdu Panda base’s research to improve the success of the reproduction.
Are panda names meaningful?
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, said the names given to the pandas were of “symbolic importance.”
He pointed to the names of the two giant pandas given to Taiwan in 2008 – Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan – which combined the middle reunion in Chinese.
Professor Brown said this could be considered “an expression of [China’s] want to meet again one day “.
The names, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, were chosen after an unofficial public poll of more than 100 million people in mainland China, and the results were revealed live on national television at the 2006 CCTV New Years Gala.
The pandas were initially rejected by the ruling Progressive Democratic Party, but the decision was overturned after the election of Taiwan’s nationalist Kuomintang Party.
In 1957, China also offered two pandas to the Soviet Union called Ping Ping and An An – which together mean peace in Chinese – in 1957 and 1959 respectively.
Other names are more generic. For example, a baby panda born in Japan last year was called Xiang Xiang, or perfume.
Are pandas really used as propaganda?
Kindness never fails with the public media regularly showing videos and photos of pandas tripping over themselves and munching bamboo.
But more than just being cute and a symbol of China, Professor Brown said animals have also helped promote the idea that China is a “conservation country.”
Georgia Grice, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said China appears to be using pandas to improve their image in other countries.
While Chinese culture has historically been associated with powerful dragon imagery, it said there has been a “very abrupt transition” to “fluffy, cute and non-threatening” pandas.
She said it was also interesting to see an increase in the use of panda imagery in line with the boom in China’s economy and its political engagement with the West in the 1990s.
“I think pandas are taken to a different level by China and the international media – where they have just become that phenomenon per se,” she said.
“[In Chengdu], the entire town is just inundated with tea cups and panda flower pots, aprons and baking clothes – it’s pretty crazy how popular imagery is and where it had just become its own industry. “