The Softest of Soft Powers: Panda Diplomacy

Ya Ya and Le Le, companions for life | Source: Panda Voices

For more than 50 years, China has offered pandas to zoos around the world, acting as the softest of soft powers. Put simply, Panda Diplomacy involves China offering pandas to other countries, to keep in their zoos and make them accessible to the public. Pandas are an important national treasure in China. By leasing pandas out to the world, China gets to cultivate its image, attracting tourists, fostering good relations, and generating goodwill. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, how could you not love a panda? 

But Panda Diplomacy took a turn for the worse earlier last year.

Things began to fall apart when a panda by the name of YaYa, who has been living at Memphis Zoo in the US for many years, was removed and put on a plane back to her place of origin in China. Yaya’s 20-year lease had expired and China’s Government elected not to renew it. This was the result of a dispute that had been going on for months between China and the United States.

What was the dispute? Where does Panda Diplomacy stand today? We will get to that. First, a quick history lesson.

Over fifty years ago, in 1972, two pandas from China, Lingling and Xingxing, arrived in Washington as a symbolic offering of friendship between the US and China. The offering came after President Richard Nixon met with Chairman Mao Zedong. During President Nixon’s visit to China, his wife, First Lady Pat Nixon, visited the Beijing Zoo and became obsessed with the pandas – she adored them! Because of this, Premier Zhou Enlai offered Lingling and Xingxing as a gift to the US. When the pandas arrived in the US in April of 1972, they were greeted by 8,000 people waiting to get a glimpse of them. During their first year in the US, they had more than one million visitors at Washington National Zoo. 

Thus, Panda Diplomacy began and China has been sending pandas to the US and all around the world ever since. Such was its success, that the US entourage who visited China in 1972 felt compelled to send a gift back to China. Maybe they could forge a Panda Diplomacy of their own? Unfortunately, they chose to send a musk oxen as their gift. A musk oxen is known for having a powerful stench and, thus, Musk Oxen Diplomacy never quite took off. Winston Lord, who was a member of the US National Security Council and also a visitor to China in 1972, said the following: ‘We got the better of it with the cuddly pandas versus the ugly musk oxen. An immediate tactical victory.’

Pat Nixon with a panda in Beijing | Source: Richard Nixon Foundation

As Things Stand

In early 2023, China’s ‘spy balloon’ was shot down in American airspace. As the debate surrounding the ‘spy balloon’ incident was playing out, one prominent theme was how the United States’ iteration of what happened was completely different from China’s. When such a climate of opposition exists (two sides have utterly opposing views) this can become a perfect breeding ground for conspiracy and vitriol. Put simply, when two sides have utterly opposing views then the loudest voice in the room will tend to overcome the most reasonable voice in the room. 

When the ‘spy balloon’ incident unfolded President Biden stuck out his chin and growled: ‘I told them to shoot it down!’ Mao Ning, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, called this ‘a clear overreaction.’ The ‘spy balloon’ incident was not taking place in a vacuum. Prior to this incident, the US and China were already locking horns over Taiwan and a possible invasion. When discussing Taiwan, Nancy Pelosi,  the former US Speaker of the House, boldly stated that ‘we [the US] will continue to hold down the line of defence for democracy.’ In response, China’s President, Xi Jinping, said that any intervention from the US in Taiwan would be ‘the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations.’

All of the quotes mentioned in the previous paragraph are examples of the kind of tone or dialogue that have been prominent in recent times. This cycle, this language, has become currency. For Chinese politicians, one of the easiest ways to score points is to lambast America. Likewise, if an American politician wants to score points, all they need to do is talk tough on China. In both cases, this is seen as showing strength. However, there’s a weird inverse relationship happening at the moment, because in actuality this so-called ‘strength’ only shows how weak relations are between China and the US at the moment and that is easy to forget amongst all the politicking. 

In diplomacy, dialogue is of the utmost importance. However, in US-China relations, there is a worrying trend of diplomacy taking the back seat. It is true that there are the beginnings of dialogue, however, in recent months the Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled his trip to China after the ‘spy balloon’ incident. More recently, Henry Kissinger visited China and was granted an audience with Xi Jinping. Around the same time, climate change convoy John Kerry also visited China. He was not granted an audience with Xi Jinping.

Is it not concerning that the two greatest powers in the world seem to be incapable of substantive, high-level dialogue?

Relations between the US and China have decayed to such a point that even ‘Panda Diplomacy’ has taken a hit. With the aforementioned context set, let’s explore this phenomenon a little deeper.

What’s happening with Panda Diplomacy now?

Here’s what you need to know about the current situation. As of 2022, there were two pandas whom China had leased out to Memphis Zoo. Their names were Le Le and Ya Ya. Le Le means ‘happy happy’ and Ya Ya means ‘cute girl’. Last year, Le Le started to look unwell, drawing a massive reaction in China on social media. Chinese people became increasingly concerned about Le Le’s health and how she was being treated by the custodians at the zoo. 

Le Le’s condition worsened and then in February of last year, he died. The Memphis Zoo says that Le Le died from heart disease. But if you speak to people from China, you might get a different reaction. Le Le’s death struck a chord in China and since his death, Ya Ya has been losing clumps of hair, meaning that many Chinese people began to voice serious concerns about her health on social media as well. Such was the concern, that Chinese people living in the US began visiting Memphis Zoo and offering updates on Chinese social media about Ya Ya and her condition. Had she improved? Was her health getting worse? Were the people at Memphis Zoo taking proper care of her? Was she suffering from neglect? These were the questions being asked on social media.

A billboard calls for Ya Ya to be returned to China | Source: imagechina

The level of concern reached such a level that online campaigns were launched in China to bring Ya Ya home, with one campaign gaining hundreds of thousands of signatures. Photos of Ya Ya started appearing across billboards in China saying ‘Bring Ya Ya home.’ Chinese people started visiting other zoos outside of Memphis and all over the US to make sure that the pandas there were being treated well. Comparisons began being made to pandas from other countries – the pandas at Moscow Zoo, for example, were praised in the Global Times for receiving first-class treatment. The furore reached such a high level that Chinese diplomats were dispatched to Memphis Zoo to check on the health of Ya Ya in person. According to official reports, the diplomats called for calm and said that Ya Ya was being cared for. The Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens, which arranges panda loans, said that since Ya Ya was old she may be suffering from a skin condition. Nonetheless, concern from China’s public persisted, and China elected not to renew the contract of Ya Ya. Arrangements were made for her to return to Beijing at the end of May.

Where to Next?

Earlier in this article we touched on tone, or the kind of dialogue that has been taking place between China and the US recently. The public discourse within China surrounding Le Le and Ya Ya has been no different. ‘Ya Ya will realise what the freedom to drink and eat is like when she returns home,’ reads one Weibo hashtag that received 440 million views. ‘When even giant pandas are affected, it shows China-US relations are really bad,’ is a quote from a Global Times editorial, which is a Nationalist tabloid in China. These quotes and the sentiment behind them mirror the quotes seen at the beginning of this article regarding the ‘spy balloon’ incident and Taiwan. From a Chinese perspective, this involves expressing Chinese nationalism and exceptionalism, tying that in with anti-American sentiments. From the US perspective, the same phenomenon can be observed -, whether that be TikTok, whether that be on defending democracy, or whether that be the ‘spy balloon’ incident. 

Panda Diplomacy offers an intriguing example of the state of US-China relations, giving an idea of the temperature in the room. The tone has been set and the softest of soft diplomacies has been lost. Yet if China and the US are to manage an era of strategic competition, then more diplomacy and dialogue is the answer, not less.



Shirley Knott is a NOVAsia Contributor.

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