Pandas as the Ultimate Diplomacy Icons

Apr 1, 2019 | China, Gov, What!

Style & Culture

by Conie T

Pandas in China | Dai Luo

How did pandas end up in this diplomatic tradition, also known as panda diplomacy?

Pandas are perhaps one of the most adorable animals native in China. However, these animals are more than just China’s unofficial symbol. In fact, pandas were used for diplomatic purposes since the 1950s.


This tradition began as far as the 7th century during the Tang Dynasty. According to history, Empress Wu Zeitan shipped bears, which were said to be a pair of pandas, to Japan. However, there was no specific reason indicated why pandas were sent to Japan.

After hundreds of years, the panda-giving tradition was revived at the start of World War II when Beijing (China) reportedly sent two pandas to the Bronx Zoo. The said move was said to be the former’s way of saying thanks to the latter. In the 1950s, Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung sent pandas as “gifts” to its allies, including the Soviet Union and North Korea.

In 1972, two months after former US President Nixon’s visit to China, the latter presented two adorable pair of 18-month old pandas named Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. In exchange, the US gave a pair of musk oxen to China in return. That visit ended more than two decades of tension between the US and China.

Upon news of China’s panda-giving to the US government, several American zoos, including the Bronx and San Diego Zoos, have petitioned to the White House in becoming the pandas’ permanent home. In the end, the National Zoological Park in Washington DC won the bid.

Inspired with the US-China exchange during the 1970s, former British Prime Minister Edward Heath also expressed intention to experience the “panda diplomacy” when he visited China. As a result, Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching were presented as diplomatic gifts and made London Zoo their new home.

Evolution of “Panda Diplomacy”

Through those years, China’s relationship with other countries has strengthened thanks to its unconventional diplomatic tradition. However, China has revised its panda-giving tradition in the early 1980s.

In the said revision, the pandas will be sent as 10-year loans and the country-on-loan would require paying a yearly fee to China. In addition, all panda cubs born from the pandas-on-loan will be declared Chinese citizens regardless of the place of birth.

Pandas were listed as “endangered species” in the 1980s, which is why the country had decided to revise its unique tradition. Because of this, China’s efforts seem to have paid off. Recently, pandas have been promoted from “endangered” to “vulnerable”.

In 1998, the US also revised its acceptance policy. It states, only one panda will be allowed to stay in the country, given that more than half of its yearly standard fee will be given for panda conservation. Recently, more countries have received pandas as part of China’s diplomatic tradition, including Taiwan, Japan, Germany, and Scotland among a few.

Initially, the pandas were given as gifts. But due to China’s changed policy, most of the pandas given 1984 onwards were most likely pandas “on loan”. In addition, another purpose of the policy change regarding panda-giving is to have a trade-off with the other countries in exchange for the pandas.

For example, China was able to loan pandas with Canada and Australia in exchange for oil and minerals. France also got their pandas in exchange for a nuclear deal, while Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore signed free-trade agreements in exchange for pandas-on-loan.

China’s Strongest Diplomatic Icon

Pandas are cute – no doubt about it – and modern China has apparently seen an opportunity in dealing with foreign countries to get the resources they need. At the same time, the unusual diplomatic tradition has paved the way to preserve the depleting number of pandas in the wild. And, it was effective. Pandas will continue to be China’s strongest diplomatic icon while strengthening its relations with other countries and encouraging trade.    

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