Bao Bao during her public debut at the National Zoo in 2013. Her birth appeared on the zoo’s live panda cam and generated a surge in viewership that crashed the site.

Is there something more to these beloved bears than munching on bamboo and bumbling around?

April 16, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of giant pandas in Washington, D.C. To celebrate this historic event, the National Zoo is hosting festivities throughout the month. Giant pandas first arrived at the nation’s capital in 1972 after President Nixon’s landmark trip to China ended 25 years of isolation and tension with the communist country. The gift of the two panda cubs, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, symbolized a fresh start and hope for the future of relations between the United States and China. This hopefulness was short-lived, however, as today the rift between the two countries widens on an ever-increasing number of issues, including trade, treatment of Taiwan and Hong Kong, human-rights abuses against the Uyghur population, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. As tension escalates, the continued presence of pandas in the United States faces increasing uncertainty. Recent developments to Chinese panda programs in the U.S. and abroad reflect a larger picture that China no longer panders to, or partners with, the United States, but seeks to compete with it on the world stage.

Introduction to Panda Diplomacy

The practice by China of loaning giant pandas to other countries is called “panda diplomacy.” Although China used to offer pandas as gifts to foreign nations, in modern agreements, China retains ownership of all pandas and loans the animals for $500,000 to $1 million per year. China is able to retain exclusive ownership of giant pandas because they inhabit only a small mountainous area on the Tibetan plateau. While it may seem like panda loans are merely quid pro quo trade arrangements, this is not the case. Giant pandas are a national symbol of China, and their care requires significant expense and expertise. Thus, the application for a panda loan is extensive, and if an agreement is ultimately finalized, it is a sign of trust and commitment to a long and prosperous partnership, signed off by Xi Jinping himself.

The Chinese government has traditionally used panda diplomacy to foster political and economic ties and to benefit from collaboration with other nations on panda conservation and research. Modern trade of pandas developed under Mao Zedong who implemented the practice in geopolitical strategy and formalized the term “panda diplomacy.” During the Cold War, Mao Zedong gave pandas to both the Soviet Union and the United States to reward their recognition of the new Chinese communist government. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping instituted capitalist reforms and switched to loaning pandas instead of gifting them in order to take advantage of Western markets. Panda diplomacy flourished during this period in the late 20th and early 21st century, with the United States receiving eight new giant pandas across zoos in four cities – Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, and Memphis. With greater trade came greater scrutiny, and global concern grew over the exploitation of an endangered species for use as economic pawns. China responded by developing its panda conservation efforts, and in 1996, San Diego opened a large-scale conservation research program that worked in tandem with Chinese scientists. Panda diplomacy shifted in 2008 after an earthquake hit Sichuan province and severely damaged wild panda habitat and the Wolong Nature Reserve and Breeding Center. The sudden event spurred fundraising efforts by the government, not only through the renewal of existing panda loans, but also the extension of new ones. This modern growth spurt in panda diplomacy coincides with China’s growing global prominence, and where China has chosen to focus on facilitating panda exchanges indicates its overarching foreign policy objectives. 

Going Global

Over the last fifteen years, China has employed panda diplomacy to advance economic partnerships with other nations and bolster its “soft power” in order to push forward its status as a world leader alongside the United States.

By expanding the use and global spread of panda loan agreements, China is working to generate new allies and improve the nature and consistency of dealings with other major world powers. Within its sphere of influence, China has secured panda loan agreements with American allies – Japan and South Korea – as well as Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. China has also set up agreements with other Western nations to trade pandas for valuable commodities. For example, China loaned pandas to Australia, France, and Canada in exchange for nuclear technology and uranium. To flex the power of China in these transactions, Xi Jinping requires each foreign head of state to request for the panda bears in person. In addition, China often uses the grand opening of a new panda exhibit as a photo opportunity to capture Xi Jinping standing next to Western heads of state and connote China’s equal prestige alongside well-established world powers.

China also uses panda diplomacy to project “soft power.” Soft power is the ability of a nation to influence others through the appeal of its culture, values, or policies, and China falls far behind in this area compared to other large nations. Giant pandas are universally adored for their round, cuddly appearance and childlike antics, and China believes that by increasing the visibility of these lovable animals, it will diminish imagery of China as an aggressive and authoritarian “threat” and draw attention away from human rights abuses. The belief is not unfounded. In 2020, when Twitter began labeling state-affiliated media of UN Security Council members, almost every Chinese propaganda account dropped 20 – 30% in likes and shares except iPanda, a Chinese state-run Twitter page devoted to pumping out photos and videos of giant pandas. The account instead increased likes and retweets by more than 50% afterwards. Considered relatively weak in soft power, China has found incredible success in using panda diplomacy to improve its image.

Will Pandas Stay in the United States?

China considers the exchange of a panda as a sign of approval and trust with another nation. Thus, the repatriation of a panda may signal Chinese disapproval. In 2010, after then-President Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, a pair of pandas from the National Zoo were on a plane back to China within the next two days. Although the pandas were near the end of their loan agreement, a date for repatriation had not yet been finalized prior to the meeting. While China is extending new panda loan agreements to many other countries, it is letting those agreements expire in the United States. The once flourishing San Diego conservation program lost its last panda in 2019. Panda loan agreements with the United States typically last either five or ten years, but China only extended the most recent loan to the National Zoo for three years. This redirection of energy in panda diplomacy from the United States to other countries mirrors an overall shift in Chinese foreign policy and may be a sign of things to come. Agreements at the Atlanta Zoo, Memphis Zoo, and National Zoo are all set to expire in 2023. Until then, Americans will need to wait for confirmation that their favorite beloved bears are here to stay.

Author Biography: Mary Ameringer is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. She has a Bachelor’s Degrees in International Relations and Global Studies and French from The University of Texas at Austin. Before attending law school, she worked as a legislative staffer in the Texas House of Representatives.