Pandas’ Role in Beijing’s Soft Power Play

The first pandas given to a foreign nation by China’s ruling Communist Party was to the Soviet Union in 1965. (Image: Marc Blickle via flickr/CC BY 2.0)
The first pandas given to a foreign nation by China’s ruling Communist Party was to the Soviet Union in 1965. (Image: Marc Blickle via flickr/CC BY 2.0)

After imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, an infuriated China tore up a salmon deal that it had with Norway.

Likewise, bilateral government contacts were suspended and a free trade agreement that was being negotiated starting in 2008 was also placed on hold, according to Bjørnar Sverdrup-Thygeson for The Diplomat.

Not long after this, Scotland won the rights to supply China with salmon — along with renewable energy technology and Land Rover vehicles as well. All part of a $4 billion deal. As icing on the cake, Edinburgh Zoo received two pandas on loan in late 2011.

It didn’t go unnoticed.

“Why has Edinburgh Zoo got pandas when London Zoo hasn’t? Probably because Scotland has natural resources that China wants a stake in,” said Dr. Kathleen Buckingham, from Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, in an article posted on the Oxford University’s website.

“Recipient countries need to assess the broader environmental consequences of ‘sealing the deal’ with China before accepting panda loans, as these usually signal that China expects a long-term commitment to deliver the goods — whether they be uranium, salmon, or other natural resources,” advised Dr. Buckingham.

Dr. Buckingham also coauthored a  paper published in the journal Environmental Practice where it was pointed out that Canada, France, and Australia have had panda loans that coincided with uranium deals and contracts with China.

The below  video from Vox gives further examples of how pandas are used as a diplomatic tool. Among them, dealings with Malaysia and the U.S.

Currently, the U.S. has 12 pandas on loan from China. Zoos have to pay China $1 million annually for each panda. If a cub is born, the zoo has to pay a cub tax of $600,000. There are other fees as well. Seems it is a bit of a money spinner for the Chinese government as well.

There are an estimated 1,800 pandas remaining in the wild of Southwest China.

Watch this Vox video for more on Beijing’s use of pandas:

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Author Pearl S. Buck’s China
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