Pandas: China's secret soft-power weapon amid growing tensions with the West

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A French zoo will bid farewell to one if its star attractions – a 5-year-old giant panda – on Tuesday, with the bear set to participate in a breeding programme in China’s Sichuan province. Although Yuan Meng was born in France, he is Chinese property on loan to the zoo as part of China’s international “panda diplomacy” programme. 

Yuan Meng's parents, Yuan Zi and Huan Huan, arrived in France from China in 2012, loaned to Beauval Zoo under a Chinese conservation scheme aimed at breeding pandas around the world. 

The French team was successful: Yuan Meng became the first panda born on French soil on August 4, 2017, and twin siblings Yuandudu and Huanlili followed in 2021. 

As well as boosting numbers of the "vulnerable" species, the pandas have heightened interest in Beauval Zoo in central France. The year Yuan Zi and Huan Huan arrived, visitor numbers doubled to more than 1 million. In 2022, they reached 2 million 

“The pandas gave us an identity. Today, we’re the zoo where you can see pandas,” Beauval’s operations manager, Samuel Leroux, told radio network France Bleu. 

French and Chinese caretakers hold two panda cub twins, Yuandudu and Huanlili, at Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, central France on September 30, 2021. French and Chinese caretakers hold two panda cub twins, Yuandudu and Huanlili, at Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher, central France on September 30, 2021. © Guillaume Souvent, AFP

It’s a similar story at the 22 zoos in Europe, North America and Asia that currently host Chinese pandas. Many capitalise on the popular bears with extravagant welcome ceremonies, birthday celebrations and 24-hour "panda cams" for fans.  

But the bears are not just popular with the public. “It's usually regarded as a great diplomatic coup to get a panda,” says Kerry Brown, director and professor of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London.  

‘Fluffy and friendly’ 

It can also be difficult – and possibly “diplomatically damaging”, says professor Astrid Nordin, also of the Lau China Institute – to turn the offer of a panda down.  

A Finnish zoo earlier this year mulled the idea of returning its giant pandas to China, but has since decided to keep them.   

At issue was the cost of looking after the bears: host countries typically pay an annual fee of $1 million per panda pair, which is funnelled back into Chinese conservation efforts. Loans last for up to 15 years, after which the pandas must return to China.  

If a panda dies while it is on loan, there are penalties to pay. When 21-year-old Lin Hui died of multiple organ failure in Chang Mai zoo in 2023, Thai authorities said they were liable for a 15 million Baht ($435,000) insurance payout to China.  

Nordin says the loan model is “a clever way” of asking host countries to shoulder the majority of costs for maintaining and promoting a beloved symbol of Chinese culture. A similar model is used for Confucius Institutes, such as the one hosted by Université Paris Cité, which run prestigious Chinese educational and cultural programmes.  

If the philosopher Confucius embodies the idea of Chinese wisdom, pandas promote a more playful image. As well as being big and strong, they are joyful, cute and non-threatening

Their benign reputation makes them a popular accompaniment to trade deals – France’s pandas arrived in 2012 following an agreement to supply China with uranium to create nuclear power.   

“Part of the messaging around trade deals from Chinese quarters has been that there’s no reason to be afraid of Chinese investment,” says Nordin. “The panda complements that very well in that it signals friendliness and softness.”  

Partner, competitor, rival  

When China first began its policy of panda diplomacy, more than 50 years ago, it held a very different role on the world stage. At the time pandas were gifted rather than loaned, resulting in a dwindling number of giant pandas that  no longer belong to China still living in zoos in Mexico and Taiwan.  

Today, as an economic super power, “China can command admiration and respect from others – something it could not do when it started ‘panda diplomacy’ in the 1970s,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.  

With increased power and influence, China’s international relations have become significantly more complex, especially with the West. 

“In a lot of the countries that have received pandas and Confucius Institutes there has been a shift to a rhetoric which is much less friendly towards China and less encouraging of engagement then it was,” Nordin says. 

The US defines China as both a “major trade partner” and a source of “economic and defence issues”. The past 12 months have seen tensions peak as former house speaker Nancy Pelosi made a high-profile visit to Taiwan and the US government accused China of sending aerial spy ware into US airspace.  

Read moreBeijing threatens to 'respond' after US shoots down Chinese spy balloon

The EU officially regards China as “a partner, competitor and systemic rival”.  In 2022, it said that relations with China had “deteriorated” due to differing positions on human rights, trade with Europe, economic coercion and the war in Ukraine.   

“It’s really tough for China and the West to have a healthy conversation at the moment. There are very few areas where the dialogue is not problematic,” says Brown. “Everything's an argument. The problem is [China and the West] are also deeply entwined with each other. It’s not a Cold War; this is something far more complicated.” 

Compared with the scale of discord, the gift of a panda looks increasingly feeble, he says: “Like a warring couple where one of them decides to buy a pathetic box of chocolates for the other to calm them down.” 

At the same time, pandas remain a solitary – if miniscule – area of straightforward agreement. Beijing likes to loan them. Zoos around the world like to receive them. Members of the public love to see them, as the good luck messages left for France’s first baby panda at Beauval zoo show.  

One reads: “I’ve seen you become black and white, grow up, make us happy, and soon leave. Bon voyage, Yuan Meng.” 

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