The practice of giving gifts as a means of diplomacy has been around for a long time. It is no secret that diplomats of different countries often exchange gifts to improve relations or to gain favors from each other. Probably the most unique gifts exchanged between diplomats are exotic animals exclusive to their countries, and over the years, China has put a lot of effort into both giving and renting giant pandas out to other countries as a means to improve relations. Giant pandas are native to Sichuan province, and concerns over using the animals as gifts have been raised since the program began.
Giving Pandas Away
The practice of the Chinese panda rental system began, first of all, as a way to actually give giant pandas away to other countries. The first instance of this happened during the Tang Dynasty in the 600s when the Chinese empress gave two pandas to the Japanese emperor. China revived the practice in the 1950s after the Communist Revolution and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. From 1958 to 1982, China gave twenty-three pandas to nine different countries to improve diplomatic relations. The practice has continued on in recent years with the practice of renting pandas and has become known as panda diplomacy.
One of the most famous instances of panda diplomacy happened in 1972 when China and the United States were in the process of thawing relations. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to the country, China sent two pandas called Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. became the pandas’ new home, and the first lady, Pat Nixon, held an official ceremony in order to welcome them. In return, Nixon sent a pair of musk oxen to Beijing. The pandas were an enormous success with over 1.1 million visitors in just the first year. The pandas were seen as evidence of China’s willingness to have friendlier relations with the U.S.
China has also sent pandas to the Soviet Union, North Korea, France, Germany, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In response to the panda diplomacy towards the U.S. in the 1970s, Great Britain wanted part of the action as well. In 1974, the British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked for two giant pandas from China and was given two named Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia. By the 1980s, however, concerns were being voiced over the well-being of the pandas, many of which were dying in other countries. As a gift to the U.S.S.R., the panda Ping-Ping died within three years.
The Panda Rental System
In 1984, China began a system of renting pandas to other countries instead of being given as diplomatic gifts. China offered pandas on a ten-year loan, including a free up to a $1 million each year, and the requirement that any cubs born were Chinese property. Under the provision, cubs return to China after two to three years. The World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now require a portion of the loan fees to go into conversation of the pandas and their habitat. This happened over concern over the animals being driven to extinction because of disappearing bamboo forests, the main staple of the giant panda’s diet.
Since the establishment of the rental program, China has loaned pandas to countries around the world, and zoos themselves have started their own rental programs as well. More recently, in January 2011, the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Organization and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland agreed for the loan of two giant pandas, a male and a female, now on display at the Edinburgh Zoo. They are the first pandas to come to the United Kingdom for seventeen years, and hopes are high they that will breed. China’s success of using pandas for goodwill has been seen in the association of China with the pandas and the fact that pandas appear on everything from the Olympics to stamps.
Pandas have even played a role in the relations between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, and tensions escalated as a result. In 2005, Communist Party leaders met with those from Taiwan’s Kuomintang Party. As part of diplomatic talks, the PRC offered two pandas as a gift to Taiwan, but the Taiwanese government saw the move as a ploy and was concerned about the political implications. There were also concerns over the suitability of Taiwan’s climate for giant pandas. When the government changed in 2008, officials were more open to the idea of having pandas, and the pandas, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, both four-years old, were given to Taiwan. The pandas currently reside at the Taipei Zoo.
China’s system of giving and then renting pandas has been widely successful. At first, China gave pandas as a way to improve relations with other countries but has now instead adopted a rental system. This rental system was established amid concerns about dwindling numbers of pandas and their risk for extinction. The popularity of pandas and their association with China is firmly entrenched, and many countries, including Taiwan, are delighted to be able to display pandas in their zoos. China has been able to improve their international image by using panda diplomacy.