Little Bao Bao is just five months old, and her grand debut at Washington National Zoo a few weeks ago created quite a buzz around the nation’s capital. Though Bao Bao represents the successful effort to save the giant panda from extinction, she also joins a short list of pandas whose lives symbolize China’s relationship with other countries.
The tradition began more than one thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to the Emperor of Japan in 658 AD. Modern panda diplomacy, however, began in1957, when Mao Zedong sent pandas across the world on the “diplomatic charm offensive.” The first panda he sent was a gift to Russia for recognizing the People’s Republic of China as a country. The United States received its pandas in 1972 after President Nixon’s historic visit to China resulted in official diplomatic relations between the two countries. From 1957 to 1982, China gave away twenty-three pandas to nine countries, all as signs of friendship.
In 1982, Deng Xiaoping rose to power and pandas became currency. China altered its policies and decided to release pandas on ten-year loans, instead of giving them away as gifts. Whereas pandas once represented a tool used in China’s early years as a country to create diplomatic alliances, the focus of the new panda program shifted to joint research and conservation efforts. After the deaths of the United States’ first two pandas in the 1990s, the government spent $18 million for Bao Bao’s parents, Mei Xiang, and Tian Tian. The U.S. government currently pays $1 million per year to keep the two and it is likely that the price will increase with Bao Bao’s arrival.
Some view China’s change in policy as the country’s attempt to profit off of what had been a sign of friendship during a time in which the Cold War chilled relations around the globe. In 2008, however, a devastating earthquake decimated China’s Sichuan province and destroyed 23 percent of China’s panda habitats, including its largest and most prestigious conservation center. Since the earthquake, China has increased its lending program.
Scientists at the University of Oxford currently believe that, at a time when some of its diplomatic ties are strained and it has limited space to care for pandas due to the earthquake, China is entering a third era of panda diplomacy that will be centered around the exchange of resources and technology. France and Canada received pandas after signing uranium deals, and Scotland after agreeing to supply China with salmon meat, Land Rover cars, and petrochemical and renewable energy technology.
China’s policy of using pandas to impact diplomatic relationships works both ways: China has refused to gift or loan the furry bears to countries that China perceives to be acting against Chinese interests. When the United States refused to cancel a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2010, China forced the U.S to return its two American-born cubs. Similarly, when Austria also found itself in hot water with China over Tibet and human rights-related issues, its two pandas were caught in the middle.
Regardless of their amount of economic and political power, pandas still retain important symbolic value. According to the authors of the Oxford study, China is trying to build relationships based on the principles of guanxi: the concept of “deep trade relations characterized by trust, reciprocity, loyalty, and longevity.” Lead author Dr. Kathleen Buckingham said: “From a Chinese perspective, sharing the care of such a precious animal strengthens the bonds that China has with its ‘inner circle’ of countries. Panda loans…represent a ‘seal’ of approval and intent for a long and prosperous relationship.”
In fact, just one hundred days after Bao Bao’s birth, the First Ladies of the United States and China, Michelle Obama and Peng Liyuan, posted videos praising the eighteen-pound cub that does nothing but eat, sleep, and look adorable as a symbol of growing bonds between the two countries.