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An Instrument in China’s Statecraft Toolkit

By recalling baby Panda named Tai Shan offspring of Pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian from the United States in 2010, China gave expression to its discontentment.  It was an aftereffect of the US providing  €4.6 billion weapons help package to Taiwan.  The dragon felt more aggrieved once it learnt that, the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama visited Washington.  This instance amply demonstrates the importance of Panda in Chinese diplomacy. 

However, this was not the first time when Panda was involved in any diplomatic engagement by China.  Mao Zedong, in fact, used Panda in getting into any diplomatic discussions during his time.  The Chinese national animal; Panda has been a key representative of Chinese diplomacy due to its rarity and cultural relevance since the Cold War.

Genesis and Brief History

The saga of China’s rise to attain the status of the world’s leading power is told in many ways. One school of thought suggests that there are several obstacles in the way of that sort of hegemonic change where China assumes the status of a credible and influential alternative to the US.  Issues looming large are civil liberties, demographic issues, and feasibility of communist party remaining in power with a growing middle class.  The instability would render China unable to surpass the United States.

Another school of thought proclaims, China outperforming the US, as inevitable.   The Chinese economy will eventually grow large enough to combat the United States’ economy.  More often than not, economic might also translates into political power.  If ‘Rising and Assertive, Belligerent China’ narrative gains currency, other nations may employ political measures, attempting to limit economic influence from China.  Dragon is trying to get around this picture.  By magnifying its attractiveness, China tries to gain trust and ability to get others to become favorable to its so-called narrative of ‘Peaceful Rise.’  This is where the panda enters the picture.

Dragon’s Public Diplomacy

Image result for richard nixon and mao zedong

Public diplomacy can be defined as a means of increasing a country’s soft power channelled through civil society rather than the traditional government to government way.  It includes activities to create familiarity and knowledge about a country and thereafter increasing the appreciation and projecting a favorable image of it.

The practice of using pandas as a gift to other nations is perhaps most famously done in 1972. An epic meeting between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong deserves a mention here.  At the time of the meeting, two pandas and an American musk ox were exchanged to symbolize the strengthened ties between the nations.  Pandas have since then been given as gifts to countries when different states of heads came to visit China.  This practice, however, invited criticism from international NGOs and environmentalist disagreeing with the handling of an endangered animal.

Since then the pandas are now being loaned to other nations.  Rules were also specified regarding the offspring of any Panda couple gifted by China.  All pandas, even if they are born abroad belong to the Chinese state.  The receiving country must pay an annual fee to the Chinese state for keeping them.   Some zoos even report big loses because of the expensive upkeep. However, the panda giving still remains a diplomatic tool.


The pandas are seen as a symbol of co-operation between China and the receiving country. They are also a depiction for increased scientific and technological co-operation.  However, keeping the pandas are not the only thing negotiated.  Indeed pandas are representing a seal of approval, if a government agrees to take care of the pandas it shows a long-term commitment to the relationship between the countries.

Guanxi (关系) – literal meaning ‘Relationship’-  in Chinese parlance is an important concept.  It attributes enormous credence to personalized social networks of power.  A significant part of Guanxi is gift giving.  It is once the relationship and partnership between China and a particular nation are consolidated, then only the country can be considered to receive a panda.

China-Nordic Relations

It was announced that two out of the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) would receive a pair of pandas. Finland received two Pandas in January 2018 followed by Denmark which received pandas in April 2019.

With China-Iceland, China- Denmark and China-Sweden bilateral trade not exactly significant, no panda diplomacy is visible. 

Japan and the United States

In most countries with pandas, there has only been one instance of panda diplomacy. While in some of them the contract of leasing the panda has been prolonged, such as in Germany which received a pair of pandas already in the 1970s and then again in 2017, although in most cases, there have not been more pandas sent. 

Other exceptions to this postulate are Japan and the United States which also have the most pandas outside of China. Furthermore, they are also China’s biggest trading partners.  A holistic analysis of bilateral relations reveals that whenever engagement between China and either Japan or the US increased the panda diplomacy took place.


In the case of Taiwan, the practice of panda diplomacy could be regarded as a special case. China does not recognize Taiwan’s proclaimed position as an independent nation.  Although there is some agreement on the ‘One China’ concept,    accordingly China and Taiwan both acquiesce that there is only one China.  Taiwan albeit refrains from unequivocally stating, which one it is.

From the official perspective of China, pandas sent to Taiwan could be interpreted as mere relocation domestically.  Aim of giving Taiwan two pandas in 2005 probably was to send them as a gesture of goodwill and to change the negative opinion that the Taiwanese held towards China.

But, the pandas and the intent behind them were met by suspicion and they were not accepted. After several meetings between different organizations, diplomats, and zoologists among many, China continually tried to make Taiwan accept them. The uniqueness of this case lies in the unprecedented participation of the Chinese public.  In an internet event, people could send in name suggestions to name the pandas set for Taiwan, and according to an estimate, over 1.3 million Chinese people participated in naming the pandas.

The names were Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan which combined Tuanyuan (团 圆 ) translates to “reunion”.  The sitting president whose party held a pro-Taiwan independence line realized the political implications and refused to accept them.  It was only in 2008 when the more pro-China president Ma was elected into the office, that the not so solemn proposal was agreed upon and pandas were finally accepted by Taiwan.


Panda diplomacy could in some ways be regarded as a source of hard power instead of soft power, which is the opposite of the initial premise. While sending a panda to another consenting country clearly does not have any military implication, it could potentially be regarded as a caveat.

The panda-receiving zoo usually experiences an increase in its visitors as well as tourism in the regions/country. However, the huge cost for both maintenance and care of the pandas, and fees paid to the Chinese state covering the rental cost typically outweighs the income earned from them even in the most popular zoos.

So, the economic burden of caretaking of pandas manifests against the perception of them being a generous gift.  The only exception being in Taiwan where the pandas also carried a political message and is a case where panda diplomacy initially can be regarded as a failure as the pandas did not manage to alter the opinion of China as it was expected to.


In preceding paragraphs, an attempt has been made to research the role of panda diplomacy as a part of Chinese public diplomacy. The subject evinced enhanced interest from the author especially since the concept of panda diplomacy has been a subject of intrigue and enigma among the public and in the media, especially in the light of a panda arriving at their country.

Panda with their uniqueness and strong ties to China, which through successfully engaging the public continuously manage to connect the animal to the country, are both a useful tool in public diplomacy and a source of soft power.  As could be seen, it is not a typical way of conducting public diplomacy but it is apparent that it is meant to strengthen the relationship between China and the receiving country depicting a long-term commitment between the nations.

The countries chosen as could be seen in the example of the Nordic countries not only are of economic interest to China but also already have a good relationship and strong ties with a dragon.  Trade agreements are still negotiated without having a panda sent and a potential explanation could in the case of too small economies be the lack of resources to be able to commit to taking care of a panda for the required period.

Panda diplomacy seems to be an effective public diplomacy measure as the attention that pandas get in the media projects a benign picture of China.  Owing to the ceremonial and highly official way that panda diplomacy is conducted, through panda diplomacy China strives to create the image of a nation emphasizing the strong bond and exhibiting its deep trust and commitment to long term cooperation with the panda-receiving nation.

29 May 19/Wednesday                                                             Written by Naphisa

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