Panda Diplomacy — China’s Fluffy Agenda

Who doesn’t love the fuzzy, bamboo-chewing, black-and-white bears? It seems most of us do. But there’s more to the pandas than meets the eye. Could it be that their fluffiness has more uses than to simply charm you?

In 1972, Richard and Pat Nixon made an historic visit to China. At the state banquet, the first lady, was seated next to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou pointed to a pack of cigarettes adorned with pandas and asked Mrs. Nixon if she liked it. Puzzled, the first lady replied that she didn’t smoke, “I mean giant pandas,” Zhou said, “Of course! They are so cute!” responded Mrs. Nixon. And as “luck” would have it, a pair of pandas landed in America two months later.

The pandas were taken to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., and on their first day of display, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling received more than 20,000 visitors and were soon featured on magazine covers as panda fever spread across America. China also received a furry gift in return; two musk oxen named Milton and Mathilda. Needless to say, it is pretty clear who got the short end of the stick…

Pandas for Peace

However, panda gifting started way before the 70’s. Empress Wu Zetian sent pandas to the Japanese emperor as a sign of goodwill in 658 AD. During the Zhou Dynasty, pandas were thought of as benevolent and tranquil creatures. At the time, raising a flag embellished with a panda during battle, meant that a temporary truce would ensue. The black and white colors of the panda coat was seen as a physical manifestation of yin and yang. When balanced, yin and yang bring peace and harmony, and as a result, the panda became a symbol of peace. The peaceful association with the animal has stuck ever since and pandas also became a national symbol of China. The cuddly creatures have been used as political tools and posed as China’s goodwill ambassadors for many centuries, promoting peace and friendship between China and other countries.


Originally, the pandas were given as gifts, China would hand out the chubby bears asking nothing in return. Pandas were given to the Soviet Union during the cold war, to France in 1973 as they were the first western power to establish diplomatic relations with China and to North Korea who received a total of five pandas between 1965-1980. But due to the declining number of pandas, China changed its panda policy in 1984 and the country started loaning them out instead of simply gifting them with no strings attached. Now, countries have to pay $1 million per year to China’s Wildlife Conservation Association and return any cubs born outside of China to their motherland before the age of four.

Soft Panda Power

It has been pretty clear that the pandas aren’t exactly given out at random, and a study from Oxford University in 2013 supports the claim. It turns out, panda-loans to Canada, France and Australia were granted in close approximation to uranium contracts signed with China. In addition, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Macao were also rewarded with fluffy bears after signing free-trade agreements. This is a way for China to spread its soft power, a concept that David Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University explains as follows:

“Soft power is like a country that is a magnet, that attracts others to you, others want to emulate you, they respect you, they value your political system. In other words they want to be like you. That’s soft power. It comes from society. It does not come from the government”

It is easy to see how pandas fit right in, the animal remains one of the most important Chinese symbols and an icon of Chinese soft power. It is no coincidence that the countries housing pandas, the U.S., Japan and South Korea are also some of China’s top trading partners. Also, when countries do something that China does not condone, they can be threatened to have the pandas sent back.

Who gets a panda?

Last year, Finland welcomed pandas Hua Bao and Jin Baobao, after President Xi’s state visit in the country. In return of the bear-loan, Finland made innovation and investment agreements with China and promised to support the ‘one China’ policy, meaning that Finland officially recognizes the People’s Republic of China—not Taiwan.

Hua Bao and Jin Baobao before moving to Finland (source:

Not many are able to resist the fluffy cuteness, but Taiwan managed to withstand it for almost three years before giving in. There had been tension between Taiwan and the mainland and as the Convention on International Trade only allows China to gift pandas to domestic zoos, the fact that China was giving away the pandas implied that Taiwan belonged to China, something that didn’t sit well with the Taiwanese regime at the time. But after a change of government in 2008, the relationship between the two warmed up, and the island welcomed Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan. The names if combined mean “family reunion” in Chinese and points to the desire to be reunited someday. The names were chosen after a poll where over 100 million people in mainland China voted.

Animal Diplomacy

Although China’s panda diplomacy is the most well-known, it is far from the only country using cute animal in order to drive their political agenda. In fact, Julie Bishop, the former minister of foreign affairs in Australia “ranked koala cuddling first among other soft power strategies that help build a stronger, connected and more prosperous region”. The koala diplomacy was on full display during G20 leader’s meeting in 2014 where Obama and Putin were given the animal to cuddle in front of the world’s media. Vietnam sent elephants to Mao Zedong on various occasions during the 1950’s and Turkmenistan gifted Xi Jinping with a “heavenly horse” back in 2014. China being the biggest customer for natural gas from Turkmenistan might have something to do with the sudden majestic endowment.

source: White House Photo by Pete Souza/Andrew Taylor

The next time you see a panda, a koala or some other unique animal at the zoo, keep in mind that it might very well be a calculated political scheme you’re watching slowly munching bamboo or climbing eucalyptus trees. Behind the fluffy exterior there could be a uranium deal, a free-trade agreement or some type of arrangement working in the country’s best interest. Nothing in life comes for free, not even pandas.

Featured photo credit to