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Panda diplomacy is China's use of giant pandas as diplomatic gifts to other countries. The practice existed as far back as the Tang dynasty,[1] when Empress Wu Zetian (625–705) sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor.[2]


Pandas in Chinese politicsEdit

U.S. First Lady Pat Nixon viewing the Beijing Zoo panda exhibit in February 1972.

The People's Republic of China used panda diplomacy in the 1950s and has become known in recent decades for this practice. From 1958 to 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries.[2] One highlight of panda diplomacy was the Chinese government's gift of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the United States in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China[3] (President Nixon reciprocated by sending back a pair of musk oxen). Upon the pandas' arrival in April 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon donated the pandas to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where she welcomed them in an official ceremony. Over twenty thousand people visited the pandas the first day they were on display, and an estimated 1.1 million visitors came to see them the first year they were in the United States.[2] The pandas were wildly popular and China's gift was seen as an enormous diplomatic success, evidence of China's eagerness to establish official relations with the U.S.[3] It was so successful that British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked for pandas for the United Kingdom during a visit to China in 1974. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching therefore arrived at the London Zoo a few weeks later.[2]

By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used purely as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on ten-year loans. The standard loan terms include a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan be the property of the People's Republic of China. Since 1998, because of a World Wildlife Fund lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda only if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat.

Pandas have become important diplomatic symbols, not only to China. In a visit by Hu Jintao to Japan in May 2008, China announced the loan of two pandas to Japan. The President was quoted as saying "Giant pandas are very popular among the Japanese, and they are a symbol of the friendly ties between Japan and China."[4] Actions that other countries take with pandas are often seen as laden with meaning. For example, British diplomats worried that a 1964 transfer of a panda from a London zoo to Moscow would worsen Sino-Soviet relations.[5] In January 2006, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was photographed hugging a 5-month-old panda cub during his visit to Sichuan Province. The image was widely broadcast by the Chinese media and was purportedly interpreted as a sign that Zoellick supported better relations between China and the United States.[6]

On 16 April 2014, China had planned to send a pair of pandas named Fu Wa and Feng Yi to Malaysia to mark their 40 years diplomatic ties but were postponed following the MH370 tragedy.[7] The two pandas later arrived in Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 21 May 2014 and placed at the National Zoo of Malaysia (Zoo Negara).[8][9]

Recently, Finland agreed to care for two giant pandas. During the same visit, as per normal practise during state visits, Finland confirmed that it will abide by the One China Policy.[10]

The most recent Panda loan was to Indonesia, as the two Pandas “Cai Tao” and “Hu Chun” arrived in the capital in 2017 to be placed in Taman Safari Bogor as a part of Indonesia-China Diplomacy Anniversary for 40 years.

Offer of pandas to TaiwanEdit

Giant panda at Taipei Zoo

In 2005, Lien Chan, chairman of the Kuomintang, the then-opposition party in Taiwan, visited mainland China. As part of the talks between Lien Chan and the Communist Party of China (CPC), two pandas (later named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan; tuányuán (simplified Chinese: 团圆; traditional Chinese: 團圓) meaning "reunion" in Mandarin) were offered as a gift to the people of Taiwan.

While the idea was popular with the Taiwanese public, it proved difficult with the Republic of China (ROC) government of Taiwan, then led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP supports Taiwanese independence and opposes unification with the People's Republic of China, and saw the gift of pandas as an attempt by the CPC to draw the ROC government into its "united front". While several zoos in Taiwan made bids to host the pandas, the ROC government raised objections, ostensibly on the grounds that pandas were not suited to the Taiwanese climate and that Taiwan did not have the expertise to rear pandas successfully. It was widely understood, however, that these were underlain by political considerations by the DPP-led government to maintain its distance from the PRC government.[11] Another technical issue is a dispute over the applicability of Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). In 1998, China offered the Republic of China two giant pandas in exchange for wartime peace. The PRC insisted that a transfer from mainland China to Taiwan was a domestic transfer, not subject to CITES, while the ROC government disputed this and would not accept the pandas without CITES procedures.[12] On March 11, 2006, the ROC formally rejected the offer, with President Chen explaining in his weekly newsletter, "A-bian (Chen's nickname) sincerely urges the Chinese leaders to leave the giant pandas in their natural habitat, because pandas brought up in cages or given as gifts will not be happy".[12]

Following a change of government in Taiwan, in July 2008, the ROC government led by the Kuomintang stated that it would accept the gift of two four-year-old giant pandas.[13] In December 2008, the government approved the import of pandas under the terms of "species of traditional herbal medicine".[14] Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan arrived at Taipei Zoo later in the same month, making international news.

In response to the transfer, the CITES secretariat stated that the transfer of the two pandas was a matter of "internal or domestic trade", and so was not required to be reported to CITES.[15] The ROC quickly issued a rebuttal to the CITES statement and clarified that the procedures for the transfer followed closely a country-to-country transfer. The ROC also noted that such procedures would not be needed if it were an internal/domestic transfer.[16] The ROC further noted that Taiwan is not a CITES signatory and is therefore not obligated to report to the CITES Secretariat its acceptance of the two pandas.[17]

Other animals as diplomatic giftsEdit

Internationally, other rare animals appear as diplomatic/political gifts as well. For example, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, five Chinese sturgeons, symbolising the five Olympic rings, were given by China's Central Government to Hong Kong.[18]

In 2009, the government of the Seychelles Islands announced its gift of a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises to the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and in appreciation of China's assisting the small insular nation with the expenses of participating in the Expo. The two tortoises will be actually kept in Shanghai Zoo.[19]

The government of Mongolia has been gifting horses to visiting dignitaries. Those who have received Mongolia's horses as a gift from its government include the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye,[20] Vice President of India Mohammad Hamid Ansari,[21] Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi,[22] and the United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.[23]

The Philippines plans to loan a pair of Philippine eagles to Singapore in 2019 for ten yearsas an effort to boost ties between the two countries. The Philippine government also considers the move as an "insurance policy" in a bid to protect the endangered species' population in an event an avian outbreak wipes out the indigenous population in the Philippines.[24]

Presenting animals as gifts to dignitaries is an ongoing ritual that dates back centuries. The Song of Roland demonstrates how common this practice was in that even this poem, so focused on scenes of battle, bravery, and chivalry made space to describe the allure and temptation of owning exotic animals.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The giant panda is on a bit of a roll".
  2. ^ a b c d Magnier, Mark (March 21, 2006). "Attack of the Pandas" – via LA Times.
  3. ^ a b "Squarespace - Claim This Domain".
  4. ^ AFP (May 7, 2008). "Chinese leader hails warming with Japan on rare visit". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  5. ^ Kate McGeown, China's panda ambassadors, BBC News, May 3, 2005
  6. ^ Edward Cody, U.S. Envoy Engages in Panda Diplomacy, Washington Post, January 26, 2006, p. A16
  7. ^ "China delays sending pandas to Malaysia out of respect for MH370 families". The Associated Press. Global News. April 11, 2014. Retrieved May 21, 2014.
  8. ^ "Pandas arrive in Malaysia after MH370 delay". News24. May 21, 2014. Retrieved May 21, 2014.
  9. ^ "Pandas arrive in Zoo Negara". The Star. May 21, 2014. Retrieved May 21, 2014.
  10. ^ "Pandas Losing Money for Ahtari Zoo". YLE.
  11. ^ Chris Hogg, Taiwan "unlikely" to want pandas, BBC News, January 9, 2006
  12. ^ a b Spencer, Richard (March 24, 2006). "We're not wild about your pandas, China told" – via
  13. ^ Jane Macartney (July 4, 2008). "Comment: Where airlines go, panda diplomacy may follow". Times Online. Retrieved July 15, 2008.
  14. ^ SEF rejects CITES' interpretation of 'domestic transfer' of pandas. Taiwan News. December 24, 2008
  15. ^ "PANDA DIPLOMACY: CITES secretary says panda transport need not be reported - Taipei Times".
  16. ^ "404".
  17. ^ PANDA DIPLOMACY: Use of ‘domestic’ by CITES secretariat was wrong: MAC
  18. ^ ""Living fossil of fish" Chinese sturgeons debut in HK". Xinhua. June 20, 2008.
  19. ^ Seychelles presents giant tortoises to organizer Archived 2011-07-08 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Park receives gift horse from Mongolian president". Yonhap News.
  21. ^ "Mongolian President gifts horse to Ansari". India Today.
  22. ^ "Why PM Modi left 'Kanthaka' in Mongolia - Times of India ►".
  23. ^ "Hagel gets a horse from Mongolian hosts as he wraps up Asia trip". Washington Post.
  24. ^ Enano, Jhesset (May 21, 2019). "2 Philippine eagles to fly in Singapore under wildlife loan deal". Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved May 21, 2019.

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