For more than half a century China has used pandas to keep its friends and neighbours happy and helpful. That’s right! These cuddly, slow breeding mammals have played a key role in the country’s diplomatic moves. From being gifted to political heavyweights to boosting trade deals, the pandas have done it all.
It can be traced back to the time when Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty gave a panda as a present to the Japanese Emperor. The gesture reportedly received such applause and attention that these mammals became diplomatic symbols of friendship and cooperation between China and other countries. In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China revived the practice. Between 1958 and 1982, 23 pandas were given away as presents to 9 countries.
When Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing came to the United States in 1972, as a gift for President Richard Nixon, approximately 1.1 million visitors came to see them in the first year. Such was their fame and glamour that the then British Prime Minister Edward Heath openly expressed his wish to carry a couple of them home, when he came to China in 1974. And so, Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching arrived at the London Zoo a few weeks later.
Pay for a panda
By 1984 pandas, or rather the Chinese officials, were ready to explore the money markets. They began to loan out the animals. China would lend them out as loans, with terms and conditions attached - a US$1,000,000 per year fee and all cubs born out of this arrangement were to be China’s property.
In 1998, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wanted to barter a peace deal through pandas with the Republic of China (ROC), the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) became a bone of contention. While the PRC maintained that since it was a domestic transfer, CITES did not apply. The ROC government differed and insisted on CITES procedures. After China was unified under a single national government and the government changed in Taiwan in 2008, 2 pandas were imported to Taipei Zoo in Taiwan as "species of traditional herbal medicine".
A team of researchers from Oxford University has declared that such ‘cute’ panda deals can cause irreparable damage to the environment. They studied the records of China’s panda loans and trade deals since 2008. This new phase of trade deal-led panda loans was based on the Chinese principle of guanxi. This means deep trade relations based on trust, longevity and loyalty.
The researchers found that Canada, France and Australia have panda loans that coincide with trade deals for uranium, mining resources and technology. The study gives the example of a deal between China and Scotland. Edinburgh Zoo received its first pair of pandas in 2011. In return, China got contracts worth £2.6 billion for the supply of petro-chemical and renewable energy technology, salmon meat, and Land Rovers.
Further, the Oxford study, published in the journal Environmental Practice, said that China worked the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to its convenience. After the earthquake destroyed an important panda conservation centre in Sichuan Province, sixty pandas living at the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Centre had nowhere to go. So these panda loans became 'both a lucrative source of funds to assist the rebuilding and development of the centre and a partial solution to the housing problem'.
Today, pandas are not diplomatic symbols but pawns in the progress of China’s strategic interests, says the study. Alluding to the logo of the World Wildlife Fund, Dr Paul Jepson, lead researcher of the Oxford team, claims the panda to be symbolic of “western efforts to conserve wildlife internationally”. And expresses concern over the fact that China is letting its “political, trade, economic and cultural imperatives”to influence its save-panda strategy.
Is it? Or is Dr Jepson’s angst triggered by China’s growing stature in the arena of global trade?
We can only wait and watch.
"Giant pandas are very popular among the Japanese, and they are a symbol of the friendly ties between Japan and China."
— Hu Jintao, former President, People’s Republic of China
Weapons of mass diplomacy
Last month 14 panda cubs ‘artificially bred’ at a centre in China’s Sichuan province took the world wide web by storm. The tiny monochromatic cubs were blissfully unaware of their fame and influence as they made the world let out a collective ‘Awwwwwww!’.