Periscope Presents: Panda-monium

Written By: Chao Fangning, Nicole (20-U5), Lim Junheng, Jovan (20-O5), Martha Henrietta Soetedjo (20-U2), Ng Teck Zhong (20-E5), Soh Iwin (20-E5), Young Wai Ming, Nicholas (20-E5)

Designed by: Leow Jia Wen Jolene (20-E1)

What’s Panda Diplomacy?

Throughout the years, China has been lending pairs of pandas to various countries, including Singapore. Not only do these pandas represent China, they also symbolise a sense of camaraderie and rapport between China and the country recipient of the bears. 

History of Panda Diplomacy 

Historically, Panda Diplomacy has been widely perceived to be initiated since the 7th century, when then Empress Wu Zetian gifted Japan two pandas. Although this practice dwindled for a period of time, it eventually came back in 1941, when China gave the United States of America two pandas for the American Bronx Zoo before the emergence of the second World War. Such a gesture of friendship continued on under Mao Zedong’s rule in the 1950s, where he gave his communist allies pandas.  

Today, Panda Diplomacy by China is still an ubiquitous sight – despite the forces and effects of modernization. This is evident in a recent Group of 20 (G20) Summit, where China consigned two pandas to Germany. 

While deemed a friendly and innocent gesture on the surface, many interpreted this as China’s faith in Berlin potentially replacing the USA as the next leader of the Western nations.. Consequently, the panda can also be regarded as a catalyst for political agendas on China’s part.

How Has it Succeeded?

Hard power refers to the use of military and economic means to influence the interests of other political bodies. Soft power, in opposition to hard power’s coercive nature, relies on appeal and attraction to influence the behaviour of other political bodies. With one of the world’s largest military forces and budget, the strength of China’s hard power is undeniable. 

However, this advantage can prove to be a hindrance in forming friendly relations with other nations due to its aggressive nature. Thus, in order to improve not only its public image, but also its relations with other countries, China has to increase and strengthen its soft power. With its rich history and culture, the best way for China to improve its soft power is through leveraging on cultural diplomacy — in this case, through pandas! 

Pandas are one of the most well-known symbols of Chinese culture, representing peace and friendship. The Chinese Government has successfully capitalised on this cuddly animal to soften the country’s image as well as to maintain friendly relations with other countries. Out of China’s 15 top trading partners, including countries such as Singapore, United States and Japan, only 2 countries have yet to receive pandas from China — Vietnam, whose relations with China have been rocky to begin with, and India, which with the recent border dispute with China, is not expected to improve its relations.

A more specific case of this is Singapore, who welcomed two pandas from China, Jia Jia and Kai Kai, into the Singapore River Safari Zoo in 2012. As seen from the facts that Singapore has celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations with China, China being Singapore’s largest trading partner, and Singapore being China’s largest foreign investor, it is fair to say that Singapore-Chinese relations have remained strong throughout the years. 

…And How has it Failed?

For starters, panda diplomacy has demonstrated the harsh nature of China’s soft power. One such example was their ‘good-natured’ offering of two pandas to Taiwan in 2006, though ultimately being a lose-lose situation for the recipient country. Agreeing to the offer would suggest that Taiwan accept the notion of being China’s breakaway province; not to mention the costly endeavour in caring for the diplomatic gifts. However, rejecting would instill negative sentiments between the two nations, and reflect poorly on Taiwan. China’s actions had put Taiwan in a predicament, with their initial decision being to reject the offer, choosing – in Taiwan’s view – the lesser of two evils.

After a change in presidency in 2008, Taiwan eventually accepted the two pandas. While this final decision was an arguable win for China, others have seen its borderline savagery against the smaller country. All of this under the guise of cute, cuddly pandas that won the hearts of many.

What of conservation efforts? At the very least, pandas were able to receive vested interests against their extinction, a feat that could not have been achieved without China’s value towards their quasi-ambassadors. But that idea is exactly the problem. Conservation efforts are now fueled by the power and symbolism the Panda holds, thus being more of a politically-driven than an earnest attempt to protect the species. With the Panda representing an entire powerhouse of a country, they hold great importance to China’s political ambitions. Additionally, this may have resulted in other similarly-endangered animals being overlooked or outright ignored. With so much attention focussed on these pivotal creatures, others were left behind in the process. 

How Has the World Received these Pandas?

As of May 2020, there were 58 pandas hosted in 17 foreign countries. With the widespread nature of panda diplomacy, one thing that is certain is the pervasiveness of the problems that lie within. Two main issues plaguing this act of diplomacy are the high costs of maintenance, as well as the controversy of neglect of panda conservation efforts.

Firstly, alongside the $1 million annual hosting fee charged by China, there is also a one-time fee of $600,000 per panda cub born during the ten-year hosting period. These fees are on top of the extensive staffing and upkeep fees, which include $500,000 in annual bamboo costs. Veritably, hosting pandas is not a lucrative venture for the host country, with an inconceivable amount of financial upkeep required. Some countries, though, believe these fees can easily be made up for with the high revenues of local tourism. 

Secondly, linking back to panda diplomacy’s fundamental purpose as a symbol of international relations, there remains controversy that public conservation efforts have been greatly sacrificed for a mere display of public relations. Rob Laidlaw, director of ZooCheck mentioned, “If you’re going to breed critically endangered species, you don’t rent them out and fly them all over the world – that’s show business”. 

On the contrary, the situation has changed for the better. In recent years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) officially downgraded pandas from “endangered” to “vulnerable”. Effectively, this certifies China’s decades-long effort to save its national icon from extinction.

Ultimately, while the host country might receive good publicity by presenting the cute pandas to the public, the costs incurred and possible public controversy surely necessitate the need to reconsider this endeavour. Indeed, this act of diplomacy did start off well. With 23 pandas being sent to nine countries, the most famous being the two sent to the United States in 1972 after President Nixon’s historic China trip, China’s political intentions are undeniably justifiable from their perspective. Yet, it is still timely to ask: what is the right course of action now?

The Relevance of Panda Diplomacy Today

Countries have to re-evaluate their relationships with China when accepting panda loans as such agreements often carry an unspecified amount of hidden terms when it comes to future exchanges. Much like governments allowing foreign embassies to establish strong bases in their own country, the global trade network is heavily influenced by shifting dynamics in international relations.

For the “right” course of action to occur, countries must prioritise what types of benefits they want, and recognise shortcomings in either accepting or rejecting pandas from China. Foreign governments have to decide if they are interested and willing to bring something of Chinese origin into their local zoos.

Superficially, panda diplomacy serves as a political proxy to execute China’s foreign policies. However, it is also an agenda for global animal conservation, and indirectly raises public awareness of keeping the vulnerable species protected. 

The pair of pandas, gifted to the United Kingdom in 1974, was observed to be well-received by the people there, and gradually became the driving force behind the logo of today’s World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature. Pandas also marked the start of economic reform in China in the ‘80s, which has led to the economically prosperous nation it is today.

Thus, as Singaporean youth, perhaps we can view panda diplomacy as a reminder of the changing times, and the ramifications of this on our society and others now.

While there have been other prominent forms of public diplomacy throughout the years — think table tennis diplomacy during Sino-US rapprochement in the 1970s — none can compare to the benign and peaceful nature of plant-eating pandas. However, panda diplomacy could only have been as successful as it was if not for the backing beneath it: the dominating superpower that is China. 

In essence, a soft and fluffy creature has never been more dangerous to watch!

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With great power comes great responsibility.

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