“Many people don’t realize it, but there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo.” So wrote China’s ambassador to the United States in a 2013 opinion piece in the Washington Post. These beloved animals, properly called giant pandas, are unusual among popular zoo animals because they are native to only a single country, making them especially valuable commodities in international relations.

The Chinese government has a long history of presenting panda bears as diplomatic gifts to foreign countries. The earliest known instance of this so-called “panda diplomacy” dates back over 1300 years to the Tang Dynasty when the Empress sent a pair of these animals to the Japanese Emperor.

Panda diplomacy was used extensively from the 1950s to the 1980s. Perhaps the best known instance of this practice was the gift of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States in 1972. This panda pair was given to our country after President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China earlier that year. They were not only a successful exhibit at the National Zoo in Washington D.C, but also a diplomatic success, playing a role in improved relations between China and the U.S.

In the 1980s, pandas were put on the endangered species list, so giving them away became unpopular. The Chinese government switched to loaning pandas to other countries for 10-15 year terms at $1 million U.S. dollars annually.

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Changes in relationships or new trade deals often correspond with panda loans. The UK received a pair of pandas for the Edinburgh Zoo soon after China began importing salmon from Scotland. Previously, Norway had supplied them with salmon, but China was angry enough to change trading partners after the Nobel Peace Prize Committee awarded its prestigious honor to a Chinese dissident in 2010. The result was strained relations between the two countries. A loan to Denmark may have been a reward for that country’s new stance of not supporting Tibetan independence.

All panda cubs born in captivity in foreign zoos belong to the Chinese government. Any diplomatic tension may result in an order to return a cub to China. Tai Shan, who was born in the United States, was repatriated to China at the age of four. The Chinese government requested his return a few days after President Obama met with the Dalai Lama. China had warned that such a diplomatic meeting would harm U.S.-China relations.

Earlier this year, China loaned a panda pair to Germany. If there is any doubt about the diplomatic significance of that, note that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany promised to make these “special envoys” to Germany feel welcome and acknowledged that the loan is a symbol of the relationship between China and Germany. Chinese President Xi Jinping said he hopes that “Meng Meng and Jiao Qing can bring the two countries closer and become the new ambassadors of the friendship between the two people.”

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and an Adjunct Faculty in NAU’s Department of Biological Sciences.

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