Panda Diplomacy

Connie Yap Ai Thong, Vice Secretary (2020/21)


0 min read

Ever thought of how adorable the pandas Xing Xing and Liang Liang are? But do you know that they came to Malaysia for a reason? And also for the other pandas arriving at their new homes in other countries? Not for just any reason, but to act as diplomatic gifts.

What is Panda Diplomacy?

Being the national treasure of China, pandas act as a tool for China’s global diplomatic strategy to further its strategic and national interest. Under the panda diplomacy scheme, Chinese authorities allow chosen governments to keep pandas that symbolises respect between the two countries. Chosen governments would have to pay China to loan the pandas. 

The process of gifting pandas started around the Tang Dynasty when Empress Wu Zetian sent a pair of pandas to Japanese ruler, Emperor Tenmu. The term ‘panda diplomacy’ came around during the 1960s during the Cold War era. China at that time decided to improve its international relations considering the tensions of the former Soviet Union and the USA. Mao Ze Dong, the leader of China during that time, gifted pandas to the Soviet Union, the USA and also the UK during state visits. Starting from the 1980s, China decided to loan pandas to the countries instead of ‘gifting’ them. The pandas would be sent out on a 10-year loan which required payment of standard annual fee. The Chinese authorities would loan pandas to chosen countries which they seek to have good trade relations with. The giant pandas have played a part in China-U.S. relations for the past 40 years.

Dr. Paul Jepson identified that China has had three distinct phases of panda diplomacy:

First Phase: Strategic Friend Making

China at that time was emerging from isolation in an era which was dominated by the capitalist and communist power blocs. China was planning to rise as the third independent power in the world, therefore with the intention to befriend both sides of the blocs, it gave pandas as a gift during its diplomatic visits. For instance, the gifting of pandas to Richard Nixon in the U.S.

Second Phase: State-controlled Capitalist Gift Loans

This phase is seen as more of a PR and building profiles in Western consumer markets for Chinese produced goods. The capitalist model renders it sensible to deal in a more capitalist way by loaning instead of gifting pandas by merely establishing relationships. Only certain nations which were in the strategic marketing interest of China are allowed to loan the pandas. 

Third Phase: Building Guanxi and Trade Relations after the 2008 Earthquake

After the Sichuan Earthquake in 2007, it damaged a lot of panda habitats and badly damaged the Wolong Chinese breeding centre. China did not have sufficient facilities to rehouse the pandas. China extended the loans and changed the panda protocols. There are two types of loan that China has extended to at that time. One of them was that pandas were being loaned to nations where a free trade agreement exists, for instance the free trade agreement of Malaysia with China. The other being pandas are loaned to countries where China has established a long term trade relationship for resources that China needed themselves including seafood products or cold water products (Scotland), technology related to uranium and nuclear power (France, Australia).

Bao Bao in the U.S. 

Bao Bao is a panda cub born in the US in 2013 when the two countries were determined to establish a new model of win-win cooperation. She is a clear ambassador of the China-U.S friendship. Pandas are sent and loaned to the United States as an indication of good will. Currently, Bao Bao is sent back to China due to a pre-signed agreement with China. 

Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling in the U.S. (1972)

Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling were gifted to the U.S. from China as a symbol of a renewed US-China relationship. The Cold War in the US and the Soviet Union had been ongoing for more than two decades, and the US President Richard Nixon realized that if he could split China away from the Soviet Russia, it could weaken the USSR and obtain a valuable strategic asset for the U.S. China at that point of time was emerging from its international isolation and attempting to rejoin the world. Hence, Richard Nixon made a visit to Beijing and both countries normalized their diplomatic relationships, establishing agreements concerning trade and commercialization. That was when the two giant pandas were offered to the U.S. as a goodwill offer for their diplomatic ties and collaboration. 

Chia Chia and Ching Ching in the UK (1974)

Chia Chia and Ching Ching was a gift from Mao Zedong to Edward Heath in September in 1974 where Heath describes it as merely a “friendly gesture”. Some suggested the gifting as a political advantage from China to assist Mr Heath in the election. 

Amendments of panda protocols

1984 - The Chinese government amended its panda protocol from gifting pandas to a policy where the pandas would only be sent out on 10-year loans and requiring payment of a standard annual fee. It was also decreed that all cubs birthed from loaned pandas were Chinese citizens.

2007 - The Chinese government changed its panda protocols to only allow pandas to be lent out for breeding and biology research. This may be due to the fact that the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species does not allow trade of the endangered species but only for conservation purposes. This conservation legislation changed the nation of the loans which were meant largely for capitalistic purposes during Phase Two of panda diplomacy. 

Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan in Taipei (2008)

After the Taiwanese government rejected a few offers of pandas as a gift from China, Ma Ying-Jeou, the new president in 2008 accepted the pandas as a gesture of good will to build closer ties with China. Some were suspicious whether Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan which means ‘reunion’ in Chinese bears any hidden meaning by mainland China considering the many years of tension between the two political entities. 

UK Edinburgh Zoo received 2 pandas in 2011

A pair of pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang arrived at the Edinburgh Zoo after signing an agreement with China. The ambassador of China, Lui Xiaoming stated that the pandas symbolizes the friendship between the two countries. Nick Clegg also announced that the gifting of Tian Tian and Yangguang is a sign that both countries can cooperate closely on environmental and cultural issues. The two pandas marked a trade deal which involved Scotland selling China salmon, landrovers and offshore drilling technology. 

An exception: A Gift Between Brothers 

Hong Kong received two pandas, Le Le and Ying Ying in 2007 as a gift to mark the 10th anniversary of the handover from the former British colony. 

Xing Hui and Hao Hao in Belgium (2014)

Xing Hui and Hao Hao are gifts from China authorities to Belgium to celebrate their good relations. They also form part of a trade deal for advanced pollution technology.

Xing Xing and Liang Liang in Malaysia (2014)

Arriving at Malaysia in 2014, Xing Xing and Liang Liang (formerly known as Fu Wa and Feng Yi) represent peace and a symbol of 40 years of diplomatic bilateral relations between China and Malaysia.

The MH370 incident in 2014, carrying mostly China passengers, caused tension between Malaysia and China as China disapproved the handling of the incident by Malaysian authorities. It resulted in a delay of the two pandas which were loaned to Malaysia for 10 years. It was delayed for two months after MH370 went missing. However, later the loan was restored when Beijing decided to build allies in the region given the anti-China sentiment that was growing in Southeast Asia. The delayed arrival of Feng Yi and Fu Wa was said to be an intermediary for healing the relationship between China and Malaysia after the incident.  

Being a part of the agreement between Beijing and Malaysia over the panda cubs born in captivity, Malaysia is required to send panda cubs newly born in Malaysia back to Beijing. 

August 2015 -  Nuan Nuan was born and sent back to Beijing in 2017

January 2018 - Yi Yi was born but yet to be sent back to Beijing due to coronavirus restrictions

May 2021 - a new cub was born to Liang Liang

The warning by China to recall the U.S. panda due to the meeting of US President with the Dalai Lama

Tai Shan, one of the panda cubs born in the US, was permanently repatriated to China from the US when President Obama proceeded with meeting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. China had warned that they were unhappy with the meeting but President Obama ignored China’s sentiments and went on with the meeting, thus infuriating China. The Chinese authorities then demanded for Tai Shan to be returned. This tension illustrates evidence that the pandas are indeed a political tool when Sino relations get tensed. 

Is panda diplomacy still effective today?

Gifting wildlife to one another within the political regions, it serves as a great strategic diplomatic gift. According to Dr. Paul Jepson, the recipient country would be required to keep the wildlife alive and cannot just keep the gift behind closed doors. It also keeps the gifting country in the recipient country’s consideration. It is a powerful gift between nations because the gifting country would always be talked about when their gift of wildlife is being kept in public. Therefore, when pandas are gifted to the recipient countries, people start talking about China and China gets more recognition. Pandas are quite unique with their different dimensions, therefore making them distinct from other animals. 

They also act as part of China’s trade agreement. It does not act as the initiation of such trade agreements but rather they act as the “seal of approval”, indicating that China intends to build a long-term relationship based on trust, longevity and loyalty. Agreeing to a panda loan acts as the symbolic seal to that relationship as it illustrates the trust that China puts in the recipient nation to care for their national treasure. In return for complying with such trust, the recipient country would be awarded much more. 

In addition to its potential superstar status outside of China, the reason why pandas are great assets as diplomacy gifts includes the challenges for it to breed in captivity. This also means that China is able to retain ownership and control the supply of pandas.  Therefore, we see the value of pandas acting as China’s strong weapon of strategic diplomacy.


Concluding, it could be seen that the pandas arriving at zoos across the countries bears more meaning behind them than merely an adorable zoo property. It signifies the strategic resemblance and existence in the recipient country as well as China’s willingness to build diplomatic ties with that nation. So long as China is able to limit the supply of pandas outside China, Professor Paul Jepson suggests that there might be more phases of panda diplomacy where pandas continue to exist as a diplomatic asset of China. 


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