Pandas munching on bamboo at Chengdu Panda Research Base

Political Anthropology: China’s Panda Diplomacy as a Strategy in Foreign Relations

Panda diplomacy, the cutest and softest diplomatic strategy you have ever seen, is a practice that China sending giant pandas to other countries with the hope of building a healthy, friendly and ongoing relationship. The term only became popular in use around the Cold War, but the ruler already used the panda diplomacy back to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 – A.D. 907). Nowadays, the Chinese government still uses panda diplomacy to show kindness to foreign countries as it seems softer and less aggressive.

I am going to introduce this interesting and unique diplomatic practice of the Chinese government in this blog. We will look at what is panda diplomacy, why we choose panda diplomacy, and where can we see panda diplomacy in practice. Also, I will include recent updates about the latest panda diplomacy and some fun facts. I hope you can enjoy this blog!

What is Panda Diplomacy?

A map shows pandas outside China Mainland as a result of panda diplomacy
A map of Panda Diplomacy

History of Panda Diplomacy

Ancient Practice

As mentioned above, Panda Diplomacy is a diplomatic practice by the Chinese government using giant pandas to show their willingness to communicate and to build mutual friendships with foreign countries. It was first seen in the Tang Dynasty. According to the Japanese Royal Yearbook, Empress Wu Ze Tian sent a pair of giant pandas and 70 animal pelts to the Emporer Tenmu of Japan in A.D. 685.

Modern Practice

From 1936 to 1945, the Chinese government (the Republic of China, under Kuomingtang) gifted 14 giant pandas to western countries. In 1946, the Chinese government (Republic of China) sent a pair of giant pandas to the British government. This was the first official donation with the political purpose of giant pandas from the Chinese government. Before 1946, all the donations were for nongovernmental purposes; for example, Chiang Kai-shek donated a pair of giant pandas to the United China Relief in 1941 to thank their efforts in helping Chinese people during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government saw giant pandas as a diplomatic tool and a connection builder for science and cultural communication. Between 1957 to 1982, the giant pandas were sent to other countries as gifts from the Chinese government. The panda diplomacy was purely out of political purpose to establish foreign affairs. The newly founded Chinese government (PRC) had a struggle to build diplomatic relationships with western countries in the 1950s. The very first diplomatic relationship was established between the Chinese government (PRC) and the Soviet Union. As a result, the Soviet Union received two pandas in 1957 and 1959.

After 1982, under rising concern about wild pandas’ living conditions and the influence of protecting endangered animals, the Chinese government (PRC) stopped gifting pandas to other countries. They no longer send pandas overseas for free, but they lease pandas to foreign countries for both political and commercial purposes.

The influence of Panda Diplomacy

The diplomatic practise of sending rare animals living exclusively in one country to other countries is not solely “Chinese-owned”. The Mongolian government has a tradition of gifting horses to visiting dignitaries too. Other rare animals being used as diplomatic gifts are common practices too, such as a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises from the Seychelles government to the Chinese government in 2010, a pair of Philippine eagles from the Philippine government to the Singaporean government in 2019, and five Chinese sturgeons from the Chinese central government to Hong Kong in 2018.

However, the Panda Diplomacy is the most famous one among all the rare animal gifting practices. It is not only because of the rising international status of the Chinese government, but also that giant pandas are popular around the world already. It means a lot when the Chinese government sends giant pandas overseas. Therefore, the panda lease signed by foreign countries and the Chinese government is very strict and often comes with many conditions. Many politicians and scholars argue the lease is somewhat unfair to the recipient countries. For example, the panda lease between the Chinese government and the Scottish government includes a trading agreement worth 2.6 billion GBP. Other than these extra conditions, the recipient countries must pay another 1 million USD plus, ensuring they can take good care of pandas.

Although the panda lease after 1982 is controversial, people can’t deny that Panda Diplomacy is a powerful strategy. It indeed broadens the communication between China and the world. It also stimulates tourism in different countries.

Why choose Panda Diplomacy?

The importance of Giant Pandas to Chinese people

Chengdu Panda Base - the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

The giant panda is a rare animal that exclusively resides mainly in the Sichuan basin, China. The species has already lived on earth for more than 8 million years. Nowadays, there are only 1894 wild individuals and 375 individuals under artificial captivity (stats from Baidu Encyclopedia). It has become a symbol of the country and its people.

Giant pandas are often considered a symbol of friendship and peace in Chinese culture. Because they normally move slowly and subsist almost entirely on bamboo, people usually describe them as harmless or simple-minded. Surprisingly enough, giant pandas are quite aggressive in nature. According to The Shangshu (a book about ancient Chinese history written in BC 1027 – 771), giant pandas were “invincible” and ” as strong as tigers”. The Panda pelt was an expensive tribute to the emperors in ancient times. There is also news that visitors trespassing on the panda area in the research base got attacked and injured by adult giant pandas.

The colour of giant pandas also meant a lot to ancient Chinese people. The black and white colour spots on pandas reflect the “Yin Yang” system, a concept developed by ancient Chinese philosophy. In ancient Chinese philosophy, Yin (black) and Yang (white) contrast each other. They exist as dualism or two sides of a thing. Yin and Yang can never meet each other. However, on giant pandas, the black and white spots are together. Ancient Chinese people thought it was a sign of harmony and balance. Nowadays, Chinese people still take the “Yin Yang” system and make it combined with the image of giant pandas.

Trying to survive The “Cold War”

A pair of pandas "Ling Ling" and "Hsing Hsing" gifted to the USA in 1972
A pair of pandas “Ling Ling” and “Hsing Hsing” gifted to the USA in 1972

The newly founded People’s Republic of China had a harsh time in the 1950s – 1970s because of the “Cold War”. The majority of western society was unwilling to build diplomatic relationships with the Chinese government because of the conflict of ideology. During the 1950s, the Chinese government only gifted pandas to the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, Panda Diplomacy stopped for a while. Only North Korea received a few pandas from the Chinese government.

Later, the Chinese government realised that their strategy of focusing on socialist society was not building a healthy connection to the world. They found a chance when the Miami Rare Bird Farm and Chicago Zoo contacted Beijing Zoo during 1956-1957. The Miami Rare Bird Farm and Chicago Zoo offered pecuniary benefits and some American local animals in exchange for pandas. The Chinese government thought it was a good chance to improve non-governmental communication. They agreed with the offer. But the USA government called it off to avoid communication with the Chinese government. Once again, the Chinese government seemed to be cut off from the western world. Pandas were desolated too.

After Nixon arrived in China in 1972, the China-US relationship started to defrost. The Chinese government promised to gift the US government a pair of pandas, “Ling Ling” and “Hsing Hsing”. The improved China-US relationship soon made giant pandas popular again worldwide. Pandas were sent abroad to: Japan (1972), France (1973), The UK (1974), West Germany (1974), Mexico (1975) and Spain (1978).

Similar practice: The Ping Pong Diplomacy

The Chinese government has many similar practices focusing on non-governmental communication to achieve political outcomes. Another famous diplomatic strategy was the Ping Pong Diplomacy. It appeared at the same time as Nixon’s arrival in 1972. The Chinese government promoted ping pong as a “national sport” to broaden cultural influence. Ping pong soon became popular in China, and Chinese ping pong players had outstanding performances in international tournaments.

The US government exchanged ping pong players with the Chinese government during the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan. One of the US players, Glenn Cowan, encountered a Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong. They had a short conversation, and some journalists took photos of them. It soon drew public attention since the China-US relationship had been “intense” from the beginning of the “Cold War”. This event became the turning point of the 1970s China-US relationship. The US ping pong team sent a message that they hoped to visit China to the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs. The Chinese government invited the US ping pong team for a one-week trip.

The Ping Pong Diplomacy and the Panda Diplomacy are both successful practices carried out by the Chinese government. These strategies improved China’s international reputation. They also promoted Chinese culture in western society to reduce misunderstanding. Using sports or rare animals as a tool of diplomacy stimulates more cultural and educational communication. Unlike formal international conferences or presidential meetings, these diplomatic practices are less aggressive and more emotional; thus, people can easily accept the political purposes behind them.

Where can we see Panda Diplomacy in use?

List of countries currently holding pandas

Nowadays, China only provides giant pandas under commercial lease with extra conditions sometimes. Every panda overseas must return to China once the lease is over, including their newborn panda babies if they give birth to any. Even if pandas die in other countries, China will claim back their corpses. There are only 5 “foreign-owned” pandas in history: One in Japan, three in Mexico and one in Germany. The rest of the pandas overseas all belong to China. Here is a rough list of countries currently having pandas (by 2018):

  • Mexico: 2 pandas
  • Australia: 2 pandas
  • Japan: 9 pandas
  • Malaysia: 2 pandas
  • Thailand: 2 pandas
  • Singapore: 2 pandas
  • The US: 12 pandas
  • South Korea: 2 pandas
  • Indonesia: 2 pandas
  • Canada: 4 pandas
  • Belgium: 3 pandas
  • France: 3 pandas
  • Austria: 3 pandas
  • Finland: 2 pandas
  • Germany: 2 pandas
  • Netherlands: 2 pandas
  • The UK: 2 pandas
  • Spain: 2 pandas
  • Denmark: 2 pandas

Notably, each lease is of 10 years. Newborn panda babies must return to China when they reach 3 years old. Every lease is about 1 million USD for one year per panda. Despite that, foreign zoos must ensure pandas’ living conditions.

Some funny stories behind Panda Diplomacy

The WWF logo is a giant panda that once lived at London Zoo.
The WWF logo
  • The WWF (World Wild Life) panda logo comes from a giant panda, Chi-Chi, living at Lonon Zoo in 1961. It was the founding year of WWF.
  • The Netherlands government spent about 8 million USD on building panda’s area in the zoo. The panda’s area is about 3400 sqm with bamboo and artificial streams.
  • In 2017, the US and South Korea deployed THADD regardless of the serious opposition from the Chinese government. The China-US and China-South Korea relations became a bit intense. People in South Korea were afraid of China bringing back pandas so that they started a few protests against their own government.
  • The pandas in the UK live in Scotland. Scottish people once stopped protesting for independence because they heard that the British government would move pandas elsewhere. People can experience “One Day Panda Breeder” if they can afford 1000 GBP per hour.
  • In 2017, the panda “Xiang Xiang” living in Ueno Zoo, Japan, caused too many people to visit the zoo upon its arrival. The zoo had to limit the number of visitors every day by ballot because the zoo was overloaded.
  • A pair of pandas in Toronto Zoo, Canada, attracted over 1 million visitor flow in one day upon their arrival. That was the visitor flow of one year for Toronto Zoo when they had no pandas.

Latest news about giant pandas overseas

Because of COVID-19, many zoos are experiencing a harsh time due to a rapid decrease in visitor flow. A lot of zoos cannot afford the expense of keeping pandas. For example, the Canadian government is already considering return pandas back to China before the lease ends. The bamboo is already out of stock, but there is no way to refresh stock since COVID-19 cut major transactions. The giant panda “Mei Xiang” in the Washington Zoo gave birth to panda babies who developed depression and seemed very unwell. Normally, the Chinese government would send giant panda breeders to help local zoos. But this time they cannot. Therefore, a discussion of whether it is necessary to send “Mei Xiang” and her baby back to China is needed.


In conclusion, Panda Diplomacy is a successful practice by the Chinese government. By gifting or leasing pandas overseas, people know more about rare animal preservation. The pandas overseas boost the bamboo industry as well. They have done a lot for human history and economics. Also, the world is once again connected with the help of the fluffy, cute and peaceful giant pandas.

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