China’s Very Own Superhero

Amid the serious discussions and debates on China’s political atmosphere, the Bank of China has made a decision to pledge 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) to build a huge conservation park for China’s favorite animal, the giant panda. (Image: Generation Bass  via  flickr  CC BY 2.0 )
Amid the serious discussions and debates on China’s political atmosphere, the Bank of China has made a decision to pledge 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) to build a huge conservation park for China’s favorite animal, the giant panda. (Image: Generation Bass via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Amid the serious discussions and debates on China’s political atmosphere, the Bank of China has made a decision to pledge 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) to build a huge conservation park for China’s favorite animal, the giant panda. This park is to be located in the southwestern region of Sichuan Province and is a government undertaking to preserve their national treasure. Along with that, the park, once completed, will be able to employ thousands of people in the area, and help alleviate poverty in the region.

The project is set to be completed by 2023; however, it brings to light China’s love for the panda. Pandas have been a popular entity in China and their presence ranges from environmental matters and species extinction to China’s role and face in the domain of international relations.

The panda and the world

With only 1,864 pandas living in the wild and another 300 in captivity, pandas have always been included in any discussion on the matters of wildlife preservation and animal extinction. No matter where the zoo is located, the presence of a panda exhibit is a popular destination for visitors and is also a massive representation of the zoo’s conservation efforts. Having a panda in the zoo certainly helps boost the zoo and the country’s image.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Sasha, Malia, and Mrs. Robinson feed apples to giant pandas during their visit to Chengdu Panda Base in Chengdu, China, March 26, 2014. (Image: The White House Archives)

Since 1958, China has used the panda for diplomatic purposes to soften their image globally. By loaning pandas to other countries, China has strengthened its bilateral ties, as well as advanced research and efforts to prevent the extinction of pandas. In 2016, the giant panda was moved from the “endangered” to the “vulnerable” category, and China has been commended for its great efforts. China continues to strictly follow the growth and development of each panda in international zoos. Additionally, China only leases to selected zoos at the price of $1 million per year, and any offspring become Chinese-owned.

These loans have helped China garner soft power points, and the care of the pandas, handed over to the new country, is used to signify China’s intent of fostering long and sustainable relations with the country. However, reports also suggest that panda loans to various countries have coincided with bilateral trade deals.

The real intent?

The increasing population of the giant panda in captivity and not in the wild has led many Chinese critics to question China’s intent. The sum of $1 million per year given for the leased pandas is to be used for research and the wildlife conservation of pandas. However, lack of transparency has always been an issue with China, and there is uncertainty over whether the money received for the pandas is appropriately used. Reports also suggest that China may be focusing on increasing the panda population in captivity alone, having realized their commercial and diplomatic value.

Reports also suggest that China may be focussing on increasing the panda population in captivity alone, having realized their commercial and diplomatic value. (Image: fortherock via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

While the loaning of pandas may have been started to increase international research to save the species, certain moves made by the Chinese government allude to a slightly different reality. The Chinese government threatened to withdraw the pandas loaned to Vienna when the Austrian leader met the Dalai Lama in 2013. In 2014, China believed that Malaysia had not conducted the investigation into the disappearance of flight MH370 properly, which had around 150 Chinese passengers onboard. As a result, the government delayed the arrival of the two pandas that were to be loaned to Kuala Lumpur zoo for 10 years. China also withdrew the panda cubs born in American zoos when President Obama met the Dalai Lama even after China warned against it in 2010.

Regardless of the intent and its overbearing analysis, it is hard to resist the giant panda’s charm. The panda is certainly not just used for political measures, as China and the world pay attention to how the pandas fare in their new habitats. The new conservation park will help to advance research on fostering the growth of pandas in the wild. Meanwhile, the giant pandas, by simply being cute and cuddly, are doing a great deal on their own to soften China’s brazen image.

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