China’s Cute Ambassadors

By Haris Rashid

RECENTLY, giant panda Shin Shin gave birth to twin cubs at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. Shin Shin and her partner Ri Ri, on loan from China to Japan, arrived at the zoo in 2011. Their cubs are property of China that would need to be returned to China after four years as per the loan agreement. Pandas are interesting. Besides being cute and adorable creatures, they are kind of diplomats sent by China to their major trade partners. They are the softest power that China yields by using them as an instrument of public diplomacy all over the world. There are just 70 pandas outside China.  All of them anywhere in the world, including their future cubs and all their biological material- blood, semen, fur etc. are owned by China. At present, all of them are on loan from China. Before being loaned they were treated as commercial goods that were sold to other countries, and before that, they were offered as gifts. At present, they come in pairs at the annual fee of $1 million. It takes major trade agreements and official visits to China along with personal requests to Xi Jinping to approve the panda loan. According to data available for 2019, pandas were present in 19 countries outside China and 13 of them were the top 15 trading partners of China. Other countries like Australia, France and Canada, all received pandas after agreeing to sell nuclear technology and uranium to China.

Initially, during 1957-1982, China would give pandas to other countries. Seven years after the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was signed between the two countries, Soviet Union became the first country to receive a panda as a gift in 1957.  Then North Korea, who fought with China against America during the Korean War from 1950 – 53, received a total of five pandas from China from 1965 – 1980. During President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai announced the offering of a pair of pandas to the United States in his meeting with President Nixon. It was the first time that China sent pandas to a Western country. China then sent a total of 16 pandas to seven countries in the West from 1972 to 1982. Besides the United States, the other six countries were Japan, France, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Mexico, and Spain.

Despite hostility between China and the US, the US currently has the second-highest number of pandas outside of China. Even though no new pandas have been sent to the US in recent years, China had allowed the US to keep the newborn pandas for an extended period of time after there were efforts to improve the bilateral relationship in the form of official visits of heads of both the states- President Xi’s 2013 California visit and President Obama’s 2014 Beijing visit. In 2015, the naming ceremony of US-born panda Bao Bao at Smithsonian National Zoo was attended by China's first lady Peng Liyuan and the former U.S first lady Michelle Obama. During the naming ceremony, the Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai, remarked, "Many people don't realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo". However, after Donald Trump escalated the trade war and increased tariffs on Chinese imports, China scrapped its loan agreement with the US and recalled two giant pandas that were located in San Diego Zoo.

Japan now has the highest number of pandas outside China. When the relationship between China and Japan was cordial, Japan received many pandas. However, after the relationship deteriorated due to the dispute over the South China Sea, China stopped sending pandas to Japan despite several requests from the Japanese government. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2018, the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to Beijing in seven years, President Xi Jinping said that the bilateral relations between China and Japan "have returned to normal" and that the two share "common interests and concerns" in the global environment. One of the important agenda of the visit was the request for pandas and during this meeting between the two heads of state, a broad agreement for a panda loan was reached.

Pandas are like special Chinese ambassadors to its major trading partners. When the relationships are cordial, they keep them sending. However, when the relationship deteriorates, China recalls its special ambassadors. Aiming for space, China in April 2021 sent its special ambassador in the form of a 3D-printed giant panda model into space along with nine commercial satellites onboard China's Long March-6 rocket.


Views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is a student at Ashoka University 

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