The past week in China was National Week, or Golden Week. On the first of October was National Day, a holiday that commemorates the founding of the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong. The days following it acted as an extension to this celebration. During this break, I went to Chengdu and visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. This made me wonder why pandas were so prized in comparison to other animals. I found out that pandas are an integral part of China’s political system. There is even a term called, “Panda Politics.”
In comparison to turtles, tigers, phoenixes, and dragons, whose significance is deeply rooted in Chinese folklore and culture, pandas are China’s recent obsession. When searching for why pandas are so important in Chinese culture, insubstantial results like they’re “as strong as tigers,” or they represent yin and yang because of their black and white pattern. On a less idealistic and more cynical platform, pandas do not represent peace and friendship but rather earn a profit for China. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, provinces that neighbor panda reserves has increased their annual income by an average of 56% between 2000 and 2010.
Now, Panda Politics, or Panda Diplomacy, is China’s use of giant pandas as diplomatic gifts to other countries. This practice can be trace back to the Tang Dynasty, when Empress Wu Zeitian sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor, however, this practice has made a comeback within the past century. One highlight of Panda Politics was when President Richard Nixon received two pandas from China in 1972. These two pandas became extremely popular and China’s gift was seen as a diplomatic success as it demonstrated China’s enthusiasm to establish official relationships with U.S. As of 1984 though, pandas were not only used just as diplomatic agents but also offered on a ten-year loan. Standard loan terms included a fee of up to 1 million USD per year. If any cubs were born during this loan period, then the cub becomes property of the People’s Republic of China.
While pandas may act as diplomatic gifts to further friendly relationship between China and other nations, they can be seen as China’s alternative motives. For example, recently, Finland accepts to care for pandas in exchange for the Finnish Government’s guarantee that it would never recognize Taiwan as an independent sovereign nation and people and instead only recognizes the People’s Republic of China.
During this year’s G20 meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel loaned two pandas from Chinese President Xi Jinping. This event mocked US President Donald Trump’s unfriendliness as the world’s first and third-largest trading nations further their relationship. According to the Financial Times, Xi was subtly indicating China’s believe that Germany has the potential to replace the US as the leader of the western world by entrusting Merkel with two “national treasures” and personally witnessing their unveiling. Thus to China, the pandas are an important demonstration of the country’s soft power, which is how a country makes itself attractive though its culture, political institutions, or its foreign policy.