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Panda diplomacy wins hearts and minds for China

By Chris Peterson | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-06-18 16:00

They're not just lovable, furry creatures - these animals have played an important role in international relations

At the last count, there were 24 zoos in 14 countries playing host to China's giant pandas, which have become the most pampered diplomats in the world.

Diplomats? Well, since 1958, Beijing has used the giant panda as a very effective way of establishing relations with various countries, while at the same time building a lifeline for what was for years an endangered species.

In 2016, the giant panda's status was changed from "endangered" to "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a tribute to China's conservation efforts over the past decades.

Penalties for hunting giant pandas in China are severe. Two years ago State media reported 10 men had been arrested for killing one and selling its pelt and fur. Under a law introduced in 1984, offenders can face 10 years in prison or, in what are termed "grave circumstances", a life sentence or even the death penalty can by imposed.

Happily, the last survey published in 2016 showed there were 1,864 adult pandas living in the wild, mostly in conservation areas - and adding an official estimate of cubs, that figure rises to 2,060.

Giant pandas live mainly in the bamboo thick forests of the western mountains of China, with conservation areas totaling 1.54 million hectares set aside for them to the west of the city of Chengdu.

London Zoo had, famously, a privately acquired giant panda called Ming which lived at there from 1938 to 1944. She is credited with raising the spirits of Londoners during World War II and a statue commemorating her now stands on the zoo's grounds.

It was the breakthrough visit of US president Richard Nixon in 1972 that triggered the gift of two giant pandas, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing. Their arrival at the National Zoo in Washington, DC was a runaway success, with more than 1.1 million visitors viewing them in the first year.

So effective was their presence in the West that UK prime minister Edward Heath, keen to foster relations with China, successfully asked on behalf of his country for two giant pandas, Chia Chia and Ching Ching, in 1974.

Some 10 years later, however, the arrangements changed.

Under a new deal, giant pandas remained the property of China and were "leased" to chosen Western zoos for $1 million a year, with any cubs born to the animals automatically becoming Chinese-owned.

The US, for example, passed a law that, of the money paid for any giant pandas leased to its zoos, 50 percent would be guaranteed to be used by China for conservation efforts.

In 2006, then US trade secretary Robert Zoellick was photographed hugging a giant panda cub during a visit to Sichuan province. The Chinese media gave extensive coverage to the picture, which was widely interpreted by analysts as meaning the Americans wanted deeper ties with China, particularly in the area of trade.

As diplomats, China's giant pandas have a life of ease when residing in Western zoos.

They have a constant supply of their favorite staple, bamboo, flown in from China. They also have at least one Chinese keeper, assigned by the authorities in Chengdu, to look after them.

In the Netherlands, Xing Ya and his female companion WuWen arrived from Chengdu earlier this year and immediately settled into a specially built "Panda Village" at Ourwehand Zoo in the central town of Rehenen.

An estimated 420 giant pandas live in zoos in both China and abroad - a living example of China's national animal and its effect on foreign relations.

The author is managing editor for China Daily, Europe. Contact the author at

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