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How panda ‘ambassadors’ gently built trust overseas

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During a visit to Adelaide Zoo on his recent official visit to Australia, Premier Li Qiang announced that China would loan a new pair of giant pandas to the country to continue cooperative research on conservation of the globally loved animal.

Adelaide Zoo has been home to giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni since 2009, when they were relocated to South Australia from Wolong National Nature Reserve in Southwest China’s Sichuan province.

The ursine pair were lent for a period of 10 years, which was extended by five years in 2019 with the help of funding from the South Australian government. The extension of the loan is due to expire at the end of this year.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the new pandas would remain the star attraction of the zoo, the only one in the Southern Hemisphere that has giant pandas.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for South Australian jobs, it’s good for tourism, and it is a signal of goodwill, and we thank you,” Wong was quoted as saying by The Associated Press.

Zhang Tengjun, deputy director of the Department for American Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said, “Panda diplomacy reflects Beijing’s continued commitment to boosting grassroots friendship between China and other nations through giant pandas.”

As a symbol of China’s benevolence, Zhang said giant pandas also convey the country’s commitment to peaceful development, and reduce unnecessary suspicion and misunderstanding.

Since its founding in 1949, New China has used panda diplomacy to shore up relations through gifting or lending pandas to foreign zoos to act as goodwill ambassadors. For the recipients, the move is widely considered a gesture of friendship, trust, and respect.

Paws in relations

In 1957, giant panda Ping Ping was gifted to the former Soviet Union to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, marking the commencement of panda diplomacy.

Following former United States President Richard Nixon’s icebreaking visit to China in 1972 to mend the divide between the two countries, Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing arrived at Washington National Zoo in April of that year as a gift from the Chinese government. They were the first giant pandas sent to the US.

“It was no joke, however, that even those in high levels of government were unprepared for the pandas’ popularity,” according to the Richard Nixon Foundation.

“Hundreds of people visited every day, standing several rows deep to catch glimpses of Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, top attractions at the zoo until their deaths in the 1990s.”

Later in 1972, the panda pair of Kang Kang and Lan Lan arrived at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, delivered as a gift to commemorate the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan.

The Japan News reported that the number of visitors to the zoo, usually between 3 million and 4 million annually, exceeded 7 million in the fiscal year 1973. When a new panda arrived or a cub was born in Japan, related merchandise flew off the shelves.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Mexico also received pandas as gifts from the Chinese government.

However, in the 1980s, China stopped sending pandas abroad as gifts due to their dwindling numbers.

The endangered animals could only be lent, often in pairs for 10-year periods, for breeding and biological research cooperation with foreign countries. All cubs born abroad belong to China.

In October 2022, Qatar became the first country in the Middle East to receive Chinese giant pandas when a pair arrived in the capital Doha to mark the hosting of the FIFA World Cup. Female Si Hai and male Jing Jing are due to stay in Qatar for 15 years under a giant panda conservation and research cooperation project.

“The arrival of two pandas added to the festive atmosphere of the World Cup. These have become a new name card for the friendship between Qatar and China,” said Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Riyadh when meeting with visiting President Xi Jinping in December 2022.

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