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Goodbye, or Just Goodbye for Now? Pandas, Soft Power, and US-China Relations

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The familiar black-and-white face of the giant panda stares at you through the camera lens, looking simultaneously thoughtful and pleading. Then it rolls over on its back, clutching a stalk of bamboo, seemingly at peace with everything all at once. In a world filled with conflict, people appear to agree that the giant panda is the undisputed global cuteness champion. But that fluffy, round face is also the face of China’s soft power, and the news that all pandas will be gone from the US by the end of 2024 has left many with questions about how these gentle giants first came to the US—and how that cherubic face came to symbolize so much about diplomacy, environmentalism, and relations between the world’s two largest economies.

We caught up with SIS professor Judith Shapiro, director of graduate studies for SIS’s Department of Environment, Development & Health, to ask her some panda questions. Shapiro is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges and co-author of China Goes Green.

China has numerous pandas on loan to zoos around the world, including four currently in the US. How do these loans impact China’s diplomatic relations around the world?
It is fascinating to reflect on how a reclusive animal was “constructed” into the iconic symbol of China and indeed of global conservation. The giant panda, a shy creature rarely seen in the wild, not hunted for meat, and all but missing from historical texts, has come to serve as a political tool for China’s national pride, international diplomacy, and soft power projection. As E. Elena Songster pointed out in her terrific book, Panda Nation, the giant panda has been called into service in part because China needs to appear more approachable, softer, and unthreatening. A convergence of factors, including sheer cuteness, China’s economic and political transformations, and the affections of humans from around the world have helped to save the animal from extinction and provided China with a powerful diplomatic bargaining chip.
The US is set to return all its remaining giant pandas to China by the end of 2024, though Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled after meeting with President Joe Biden this month that China may send new pandas to the US. According to the Associated Press, Xi called pandas “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.” What role do pandas play in US-China relations, and what does the loss of pandas signify for US-China relations?
Pandas are great barometers of US-China relations, dating to 1972 and the Nixon visit that paved the way for US-China relations to be normalized. Richard Nixon’s wife, Pat, arranged for a gift of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the National Zoo, and America fell in love not only with the animals but, in some ways, with China itself. The on-again, off-again US-China romance has been a theme of our international relationship for fifty years now. During that time, China has learned that giving and withholding pandas can signal friendship and frigidity as much as [former US Secretary of State] Madeline Albright’s lapel pins used to do. While pulling pandas from the US now may seem petty or even vindictive, it is a reflection of the poor state of the relationship, and doing so is entirely within the letter of the contracts governing the loans.
In Washington, DC, the departure of Tian Tian, Mei Xiang, and their offspring, Xiao Qi Ji (Little Miracle), has been met with an outpouring of grief. The US capital has taken the panda to its heart and even occasionally adopted it as its own symbol, with decorated pandas dotting the city and paper Metro cards for a time carrying a panda image. But China—and international law—makes it clear that “sovereignty over one’s own resources” gives China an absolute right to control if and how a panda leaves China. Within China, the US is often seen as unwilling to countenance the rise of a second superpower and determined to oppose China’s might at every turn. Why should China share its symbol of national pride? If, however, the US is willing to compromise on some of our major disagreements, then we might be lucky enough to get some pandas back. That depends entirely on whether the Chinese see us as worthy.
Beyond serving as fuzzy ambassadors, pandas have also become a predominant face of wildlife conservation groups and efforts. Why has the panda become such a popular focus in the world of so-called “Green Groups”?
The giant panda is a classic example of what conservation groups call “charismatic megafauna.” Often such creatures are physically appealing and have large habitat ranges. By protecting that creature, the habitat within its range is also protected, along with humbler and less visible species that flourish there. Indeed, in 1961, the young NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF) adopted the panda as its symbol, not least because its black and white markings kept printing costs low. Since then, many groups have shifted their focuses to an ecosystem approach, using terms like “critical ecoregions” and “last great places.” But charismatic megafauna are powerful symbols and effective for fundraising—think of whales, wolves, elephants, tigers, gorillas, and orangutans.
Some controversy has surrounded the heavy conservation focus on pandas, with claims that other animals have failed to be protected and that the focus on pandas—even after they were removed from the endangered species list—has resulted in greater biodiversity loss due to unequal allocation of resources. Why is the focus on panda conservation a controversial subject from an environmental standpoint?
Panda commercialization through China’s state gift program has met criticism on grounds that the trade violates the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. To avoid this, China developed what WWF panda scientist George Schaller has called its “rent-a-panda” program, which sets terms under which giant pandas are lent to foreign zoos for astronomical sums. Officially these arrangements must benefit wild panda populations. If pandas produce offspring, the cubs return to China to contribute to the genetic pool. There are also debates over assisted reproduction techniques that include cloning. But Chinese scientists have developed great expertise in panda conservation, especially at the Wolong Panda Reserve. They successfully rotate twin baby pandas to the mother, thereby ensuring the survival of both, and conduct research on the cyclical bamboo die-offs, which have been as much of a threat to species survival as habitat loss. Much of this research benefits other species as well.
Even if panda loans are political as well as lucrative, and can further China’s soft power agenda, it would be great to see pandas here again soon. That would be an indication that our two great powers are in communication with each other, that scientific exchange continues, and that our two people are trying to interact and understand each other. This is essential to peace in a dangerous world.