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China’s pandas mirror tense international ties with the West

  • Pandas symbolize diplomatic shifts
  • China stops panda diplomacy
  • Tensions affect panda loans

China has been the provider of pandas to aquariums worldwide since the seventh century; however, it seems that the nation is no longer intending to continue this act of goodwill.

Unquestionably, pandas are the glory and joy of China.

They represent nationalism and are, in numerous ways, a preoccupation of the state.

However, they are also significant diplomatic instruments, and in the context of Xi Jinping’s China, they are something of a diagnostic test for the condition of global affairs.

Unprecedented quantities of Chinese pandas that were previously housed in foreign zoos and were trained abroad have returned home in 2023 without being replaced.

An indication of the fraught relations with the West is the probable absence of pandas in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia by the conclusion of 2024, marking the first such occurrence in fifty years.

China has exported emblematic bears for an extensive period, and evidence suggests that this practice dates back to the 7th century.

These gifts have evolved into loans in the modern era; in 1972, China granted the United States its first pandas in response to a visit by then-President Nixon and his wife to Beijing.

However, the underlying principle has persisted: it was a soft power instrument that served as a token of goodwill and a platform for China to gain influence.

Pandas as Diplomatic Pawns: Ya Ya’s Controversial Return

Chinese pandas have been housed in numerous countries over the years, including Japan, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, among others. However, the sustainability of this practice remains uncertain.

Constant throngs of individuals congregate at the Beijing Zoo to observe the pandas. Certain individuals have undertaken extensive journeys, whereas others pay multiple visits annually.

Additionally, one local dweller’s narrative exemplifies how the lending of pandas has evolved into a significant diplomatic matter.

Ya Ya, who is 23 years old, is an unwavering audience favourite. Although she is not presently on public display, the zoo uploads weekly videos that document her development.

She returned from a long-term loan in the United States earlier this year amidst a diplomatic and social media frenzy.

Anger-stricken Chinese social media users demanded her return after images of her from the Memphis Zoo with tattered fur and a slender physique went viral; the accusation that the United States was mistreating her rapidly spread.

Despite Memphis Zoo’s insistence that Ya Ya’s appearance was the result of a congenital skin condition and Chinese authorities’ subsequent statement that she had been treated well, the censors did not suppress the rumours, which were sufficient to sway public opinion.

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“Everything Ya Ya endured in America caused me great unease,” says Shao Yanping, a devoted follower of Ya Ya’s life and a frequent visitor to zoos.

“I am not fond of America. Their treatment of our national treasure has only increased my disdain for them. There, she endured maltreatment. One has the ability to perceive with their own sight. Merely stating, ‘We did not abuse it,’ is unacceptable.

Panda Diplomacy Unraveled: A Shift to Wolf Warrior Approach

The continued circulation of this narrative was suggestive of relations that were becoming progressively tense. At the time, there was little progress in repairing the situation following the so-called espionage balloon incident.

However, in the same way that Ya Ya came to represent escalating tensions, a great number of other pandas withdrew as well.

Yang Guang and Tian Tian, both adult pandas, recently returned to their birthplaces after a 12-year sojourn at Edinburgh Zoo. Similarly, in November, three pandas departed from the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington due to non-renewal of their leases.

Atlanta is home to the sole remaining pandas in the United States, and their lease is also scheduled to expire in 2024.

For the first time in fifty years, there will likely be no pandas in the United States by the end of the following year.

China benefits tremendously from such connectivity to the rest of the world, and it is beneficial for the international community to gain a greater understanding of China. Professor Robert Koepp, director of the Asia-Pacific Geoeconomics and Business Initiative and an authority on China-US relations, concurs.

Although the elimination of soft power instruments may not benefit China in the long run, it demonstrates the country’s new hard-line diplomatic approach, he explains.

You once practiced “Panda Diplomacy,” but as of late, it has been more “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” a form of posturing that is so aggressive that it is impossible to call it “outreach,” he declares.

From Pandas to Wolves: China’s Diplomatic Shift

Thus, we’ve gone from cuddliness to aggression, from pandas to wolves. That’s not to say China shouldn’t believe it has the right to be assertive and look out for its own interests as any other nation should, but the way it’s gone about it hasn’t exactly earned it many allies, with the possible exception of North Korea and Russia.

In fact, China continues to dispatch pandas to certain regions, which may serve as an indication of its true allegiances.

One recent recipient is Russia. In 2019, photographs of Presidents Xi and Putin giggling together at the Moscow Zoo went viral, and China has progressively approached its northern neighbour ever since.

One might consider the possibility of pandas migrating to the Western hemisphere. During a recent summit with US President Joe Biden in San Francisco, Xi Jinping made a similar implication.

However, despite the fact that that summit provided only a marginal alleviation of tensions, there remains a great deal that divides them and, consequently, much that could obstruct a future accord.

It appears that pandas continue to be a valuable bargaining tool and an emblem of tense relations for the time being.

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