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By Vinayak Kamal Ghosh


This paper studies the unique form of diplomacy practised by China which involves the use pandas and not only humans as ambassadors. This form of diplomacy which involves the Chinese governments’ use of an endangered species as a tool to pursue its international interests is quite unorthodox. This uncommon, yet popular, tool of diplomacy is impactful but not necessarily effective since it does not really lead to anything substantial but reassures the validity of China’s international interests and relationships at most. This paper questions the practicality of such an approach to international diplomacy and throws light on the effectiveness of such a policy. Moreover, it discusses the need to re- evaluate the current method of employment of pandas as mere diplomatic tools and makes suggestions and recommendations regarding various other ways in which China can capitalize on its soft power resources.


The modern civilized society, as we know it, has its roots in the distant past when civilizations came into existence but their physical borders were non-existent. The concept of a separating boundary was prevalent but there is no evidence of any man-made, physical border that was built by tribes. The construction of one of the first man-made borders dates back to the 7 th Century B.C., when the Chinese emperor, Qin Shi, initiated the building of the Great Wall (Bellezza, 2013). But, it was the construction of the Great Wall that shaped China’s diplomatic history. In fact, the Koreans and Japanese, during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), modelled their form of governance on the Chinese capital of Chang'an (Kariye, 2010)It is common knowledge that one of the oldest known civilizations to man was the Chinese civilization which dates back to 1600 B.C. which was then under the reigns of the Shang Dynasty. With the passage of time, the Chinese civilization grew as many dynasties rose to and fell from power (Eberhard, 2008). China emerged as an important centre for international trade and diplomacy since the beginning of the 19 th century as European power and influence spread throughout the world. Many western nations found a lot of potential in China to engage in trade which gradually led to the discovery of various trade routes interaction of the west with the east (Keller, Li, & Shiue, 2011).

Through these interactions, emerged the formal concept of international trade and diplomacy. This, however, was not specific to China alone as these concepts were soon very well exploited by European travellers as they established colonies in various countries and regions worldwide to promote and pursue their own interest (Ferro, 1997). With the end of the two world wars and the advent of the modern times, China established itself as a state based on communist ideologies and came to be known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the helm of its affairs (Kallgren, 1979). It can be safely stated that China’s modern diplomatic history is marred with controversy and human rights violations at worst and is eventful at best (Human Rights Watch). The People’s Republic of China has always been very proud and protective of its culture. So much so that they have been labelled to be “anti-west”. It was only as recent as the year 1978, that China “opened up” through economic reforms after the death of Mao Zedong, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping (Tisdell, 2008). However, China had maintained diplomatic international relationships with other countries much prior to that. The increasing significance of international awareness, the growth of information and advancement in communication technology and the rise of non-state actors are the primary reasons which have resulted in the rising importance of international diplomacy (Abedi, 2018).

This paper primarily focuses on the diplomatic practises of PRC in the modern and post-modern era of international affairs, politics and diplomacy. It is indeed interesting to observe how tactfully and creatively foreign policy can be framed and utilized to establish and portray the image of a particular country to the residents of the world. With the passage of time and the advancement in technology (especially, communication technology), the interrelatedness of the world has increased exponentially. The Butterfly Effect has indeed shown its manifestations to us in various forms and has proved its validity and existence through various events. In such a situation it is vitally important that a country devotes adequate attention and resources to its external affairs. It is true that internal and international affairs are, now, of vital importance and demands necessary consideration. Any country which has a lackadaisical or ignorant approach to internationalization is bound to lose out and lag behind. Therefore, international diplomacy has assumed great importance.

This paper, more specifically, throws light on the unique diplomatic practises of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which interestingly involves the use of pandas as diplomatic tools to pursue international interests. The subsequent sections of this report underline the reasons due to which China employs the use of pandas in such a unique manner. However, it must be noted that China has faced harsh criticisms and has created a poor international reputation since they have been responsible for various events like the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Tibet issue and the South China Sea dispute. Many scholars have rightly pointed out that the Chinese panda diplomacy is not effective enough to nullify the bad reputation that has been created (Human Rights Watch). Considering the gravity of the human rights violations of China and the unsolicited extra-curricular activities of the country’s leaderships, it is really not the best and most intelligent policy for the CCP to base their use of soft power on leasing out a somnolent animal. The soft power that other countries have is unmistakably different than that of China. Such powers wielded by most other nations is a result of gradual propagation of their culture through activities which may or may not have been undertaken by the government. For example, Bollywood films are responsible for propagating Indian culture to many western countries. However, the case for China is not quite the same since most of these activities are regulated by the state.

A country like China with thousands of years of heritage has occupied the pages of various historical texts throughout the ages (Eberhard, 2008). The type of dominance that China has tried to exert over the world (especially, in Asia) throughout the entirety of its existence has been quite noticeable to anyone with a fair degree of general awareness about international affairs (Economy, 2005). Whether it is economic dominance or military capabilities, China has never been shy of displaying its might in global affairs. Therefore, it may be stated with more than a reasonable amount of certainty that China is a nation which prefers to exude power in international (as well as national) affairs. Power is considered to be relative – to people or circumstances. In order to explain, in detail, the exact mechanism of China’s dominance in Asia and the world, the definition of power must be discussed. Joseph Nye in his book, “The Future of Power” has enlisted three “different types” of power which exist – commanding change, controlling agendas and establishing preferences (Nye, The Future of Power, 2011). He further continues by stating that commanding change is the “first aspect of power and most commonly how power is perceived and used by people”. Such forms of power primarily focus on the ability of an individual or a group of individuals (or, an entity) to get others to act in ways those are contrary to their initial preferences or objectives (Nye, The Future of Power, 2011). The second form of power mentioned by Nye in his earlier works deals with the form of power which allows one to influence or change an agenda by altering the circumstances around an event (Zheng, 2017). The third form of power deals with shaping opinions and agendas favourable to the one who is exercising such power thereby, completely nullifying the possibility of the dominated entity to develop opinions and agendas of their own (Zheng, 2017).

In the current scenario, it is felt by many scholars around the world including Joseph Nye that in international politics it has become increasingly important and beneficial to be able to set agendas and attract other parties to it rather than using force and coercion to do so. As it is quite obvious and observable that the benefits of following the aforementioned policy outweigh the costs exponentially and therefore makes it more vital than the use taught us that wars are more often than not counterproductive to their “purpose”, not to mention the great amount of destruction and the unsolicited waste of resources that come along with it (Thompson, 2008). Therefore, the use of soft power is always preferred over the use of hard power. Soft power is the term which was coined by none other than Nye himself after the end of the Cold War era. He defined it to be the power which the United States had, over and above its military endowments which was apparently weakened at that time due to the second world war. Nye spoke about the ability of the post-war United States to use its non-coercive form of influence to “get others to do what they otherwise would not” (Nye, 2004). It must be noted that this term is definitely not America-specific as it has evolved into a popular concept which can refer to the non-coercive influence possessed by other nations/parties in the world. Conventionally, soft power can be sub- categorized into: cultural, ideological and institutional influence (Li, 2018).

Intuitively, it can be said that the true efficacy of soft power lies in the ones who perceive it or are part of the receiving endof it. To put it simply, “if a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes;. Therefore, if its culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow and abide by it (Li, 2018). The influence that western pop culture has had on the youth in India can serve to be a prime example of soft power. However, in the case of China, the interpretation of soft power has been quite literal in modern history. More specifically, it has been embodied in the form of warm and furry pandas. Panda diplomacy is China’s very own form of exercising soft power. Traditionally, diplomacy involves the use of various diplomatic tools which can essentially be anything used to affect, influence or amend the relationship between two countries. China’s diplomatic tool may be traditional but it is certainly not common or conventional in any way. This tool is their indigenous and inarguably adorable pandas (Lin W.-c. , 2009). China’s panda diplomacy, in layman’s terms, is basically the gifting of pandas to their allies or other nations which are favourably disposed to them or have some economic/political interest. To be perfectly candid, the practise of using exotic animals as diplomatic tools is not unprecedented as there have been numerous accounts of rulers in the past gifting animals (especially, indigenous species) to allies which strongly indicates that it was a common practise. For example, Asian sultanates treated elephants with pale skin pigmentation as sacred and presented them as gifts to kingdoms which were amicably disposed towards them (Buckingham & Jepson, 2013).

It is quite common for one to question the reason behind the use of the panda, and not any other animal, as a diplomatic instrument. Such a query is quite genuine since China has seldom used pandas to be their mascot. Most of the imagery used in Chinese folk art is that of dragons – mythical creatures with characteristics which are starkly different from that of the non-fictional pandas (Lin P. L., 2012). Here, the importance of animal symbolism comes into play. China’s foreign policy (especially, when it comes to soft power) is one that revolves around portraying a nation which is capable of maintaining healthy bilateral relationships with other nations. The primary objectives of China’s foreign policy according to various scholars is to “provide an enhanced communication of the Chinese government’s opinions and to regain a positive image of the state as a stable, reliable and responsible economic partner” (Zheng, 2017) (Hartig, 2014).

According to most of the literature, China has been striving hard to quash distorted international reports and stereotypical misconceptions about China which have portrayed China in poor light. The extent of the international opinion about China being “distorted” can be heavily questioned since China has, indeed, been in the limelight for many negative reasons such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 (Lusher, 2017), and the ongoing Tibet issue among many others. Therefore, it makes sense to employ the services of the more amiable panda than the use of the dragon or any other animal in any form primarily because they are creatures which are peaceful, friendly, adorable, warm and quite literally, soft. The irresistible nature of the appeal of these oriental bears consistently captured the attention of the masses as well as the media. Their physical attributes seem to have an innate capacity to appeal to humans’ caring instincts (Zheng, 2017). Interestingly, there are more objectives behind the usage of pandas as diplomatic tools. Specifically, China pursues three- fold objectives in doing so (Buckingham & Jepson, 2013).

The first and the most important objective is to portray a more amicable image of China and to repair the negative impression that the world has about China as it has been partly discussed above. This form of diplomacy is also used by the Chinese to pursue international diplomatic goals, specifically ones related to Chinese economic interests and international trade relations. More details and a case study shall be discussed in the subsequent sections of this report. Secondly, there is an implicit profit motive of China in “renting” pandas to its international partners. More simply put, China only rents out or leases pandas to zoos in various countries of their choice which means that China owns all the pandas in every zoo that they have rented or leased to. It is to be noted that this rental/lease agreement does not come cheap. In fact, it is quite expensive. To be more specific, the Chinese government charges one million dollars per panda per annum. In the event of panda cubs being born, the zoos are liable to pay a “cub tax” of five hundred thousand dollars per cub per annum (Zheng, 2017). To ensure that these creatures are adequately taken care of, the Chinese government has also mandated a penalty or a fine of five hundred thousand dollars in the event of the death of a panda due to human errors or negligence. Moreover, the maintenance of pandas is also an expensive affair which puts the zoos under a considerable amount of pressure to make timely payments. The panda may be the modern-day white elephant —not quite sacred, but a powerful emblem of the modern Chinese nation (Buckingham & Jepson, 2013). The obligation to keep these rare, sacred, and resource demanding life forms alive and well, so as to honor the relationship signified by the elephant gift, incurred large and sometimes ruinous costs.

The third motive of the Chinese government is the conservation, protection and research of pandas. Since pandas are endangered species, the Chinese government was subject to a lot of pressure from international agencies to adhere to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, 1975 which stipulates that endangered or protected species cannot be used for purely commercial purposes. Therefore, China leases out their pandas under the pretext of conservation and research (Lin W.-c. , 2009). There also exists an additional objective which is the rehabilitation of pandas. After the earthquake in 2008 in the Sichuan region which is the natural habitat of pandas, there were around sixty pandas which were in desperate need of rehabilitation. Therefore, leasing them out to other countries is a convenient way to rehabilitate pandas. The Chinese government has been giving pandas as gifts to other countries for many centuries. For instance, preserved Japanese historical documents tell of the Tang dynasty offering the Japanese emperor a pair of pandas in AD 685. However, it is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that has made the best use of panda diplomacy. The panda has become an integral part of China’s soft power, as these adorable creatures can easily conquer the hearts of people in foreign countries, particularly with the younger generation, and win favor for China.

The period of modern panda diplomacy has seen three stages of evolution after it was introduced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The first phase lies from 1957 and extends to 1982, when China would offer pandas as gifts to others. The first country to receive this gift from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the Soviet Union which received two pandas in 1957 and 1959 (Lin W.-c. , 2009). The second phase continues from 1982 and extends till 1994, when China started lending pandas as commercial goods to other countries. This practice was discontinued because China received harsh criticisms for violating the CITES agreement of 1975 as discussed above. Currently, Beijing’s panda diplomacy is in its third phase which started in 1994. The common practice is that China signs a contract and lends pandas to other countries in the name of mutual scientific research exchange. The rent, however, is not cheap. For example, a zoo in the United States pays up to US$1,000,000 per year to rent a pair of pandas for a period of about ten years (Lin W.-c. , 2009) (Zheng, 2017).


The primary data sources that were used for this case study were qualitative in nature. Most of the data collected are in the form of journal articles, news articles and videos. Each selected article was read through critically. Most of the analysis done for the purpose of this paper isqualitative in nature. The purpose of data analysis was to understand the timing and circumstance behind each panda loan or lease agreement made by the Chinese government and the governments of other countries.

The panda named Bao Bao (meaning, treasure) was born to parents Mei Xiang and Tian Tian on the 23 rd of August, 2013 at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington D.C. She became the second panda to have taken birth at the zoo. Her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian shifted base to the American zoo in the year 2000 due to a cooperation agreement between China and the United States. However, Bao Bao had to leave the United States due to the agreement which the Chinese government had with the United States (as it has with any country to which it leases its pandas to). The Chinese government mandated that any panda cub born in any foreign zoo must be returned to China within a stipulated period of time. Therefore, Bao Bao left for Chengdu and celebrated her fourth birthday in China which was quite well-attended by more than a hundred tourists and staff who had described by her carer, Zou Wenyong, who said that when Bao Bao first returned to China, her body clock was used to the United States due to which she was still living on American time and was excited late atnight and early in the mornings – just like an adorable little child with jet lag. Bao Bao even had a small issue with the change in her diet since she was quite fond of American biscuits and seemed to prefer them over steamed buns. It required six months of training and a lot of feeding of honey-dipped buns for Bao Bao to get acclimatized and adjusted to her new life. Bao Bao was not the only child to her parents Me Xiang and Tian Tian. She had a brother named Tai Shan and a sister, Bei Bei.

The Chinese government had also made it clear that they would need Tai Shan to be sent back to China as well. Upon requesting the Chinese government for an extension in Tai Shan’s stay in the United States, a stern “no” was received as an answer. Many scholars came up with theories for justifying such a move. Interestingly, there were a couple of factors which were involved that solicited such a response from the Chinese government. Firstly, the then president of the United States, Barack Obama met with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. As it is commonly known that the Dalai Lama is a fierce advocate for freeing Tibet from the oppressive reigns of China and has therefore, become an “enemy” of the Chinese government. Therefore, such a gesture from the Government of the United States was not taken well by the Chinese. Secondly, the United States had authorized an arms sale to Taiwan, a state which does not share good relations with China. The combination of both these events is said to have prompted the Chinese government to have acted in such a way so as to deny the request for the extension of Tai Shan’s stay. In many cases the official reason for recalling pandas back to Chinese soil is for breeding purposes. The breeding of pandas is very difficult primarily because the females remain fertile for only a few days in a year and the courting ritual usually takes a long time. However, this might just be used as an excuse by the Chinese government to put a veil to hide the real reasons behind the repatriation of pandas.

A team of researchers from Edinburgh have found that there exists a direct correlation with the panda loans and agreements made between the Chinese and the other governments. For example, the Edinburgh Zoo received its pandas in the year 2011. But, it was observed shortly after the panda exchange occurred, there were multiple trade deals that were signed for salmon, renewable energy and Land Rover vehicles (which has been rising in popularity among China’s well-to-do and affluent class). These contracts were valued at an estimated $4 billion. Interestingly, Norway - which had been China's source of salmon imports for almost two decades - lost its deal. It was later observed that Norway had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.


China does indeed view pandas as not mere diplomatic tools but as ambassadors because it has been observed (as depicted in the case study) that China has the capacity to repatriate their leased-out pandas and their offsprings in the occurrence of an event which is deemed to be unfavourable to them. Like any country which may choose to call back its ambassadors or impose economic sanctions, China reserves the right to recall their pandas at their discretion. However, the validity of this approach is questionable at times because such a move is nothing more than an indication of China’s stance regarding a particular issue which might be of some concern. Leasing out or calling back its pandas can be thought of as a mere publicity stunt which probably generates more goodwill for pandas than it does for the Government of China. Most of the articles written and published on leased out pandas revolved around the pandas and the zoos. Little to no regard was given to the improvement (or, degradation) of the county’s diplomatic relationship with China. It might be true that the pandas were very effective in drawing people’s attention towards them and it is also true that they generated good publicity. But the fact of the matter is that the publicity that was generated benefitted the zoo. It is argued that they weren’t as effective to generate good publicity for China.
As it has been mentioned before, the soft power that China has is quite different from the soft power of other countries as China’s use of soft power is regulated by the government, whereas, the soft power of other countries is built on gradual popularization of their culture through activities or events which are not necessarily regulated by any government. This has proven to be more effective and useful on many occasions. For example, Diwali is celebrated in the White House as well since it is one of India’s most popular festivals which has been propagated by Indians residing in other countries and not necessarily the government. As put by Kathleen Buckingham, “Culture is an important aspect of soft power because its adoption by others builds acceptance and omnipresence” – it is quite evident that without acceptance soft power is redundant (Buckingham & Jepson, 2013). It must also be noted that there are other (perhaps, less important) reasons for China leasing out their pandas. One of the factors was the destruction of their natural habitat during the earthquake in the Sichuan region in 2008. It has been found that the number of pandas leased out after that has been on the rise. This is rather a sensible decision as it would help in the conservation and protection of this endangered species and it would also be a profitable venture for the Chinese government. However, the fact that most of the panda deals made by China has been announced or made only after the agreement on major trade deals with different nations must be underlined. This bolsters the argument that panda deals are not the cause or the precursor to any major trade deal but are more likely, by products of successful diplomatic talks or agreements.

Although the PRC is a country which has quite an aggressive foreign policy, they choose to make use of pandas as potential national emblems to portray a more amicable image. To a certain extent it does prove useful as there are many countries which do make efforts to get their very own panda but it must be stated again that history cannot be forgotten so easily. Professor Wen-cheng Li from the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies states, “When these animals are taken out of their natural habitat, and especially when they are sent to an environment outside China, their average lifespan reaches only 8.5 years, which is much shorter than their natural life expectancy. A nation that truly cherishes its national treasures will not use them as diplomatic tools. However, since the Chinese government does not even cherish human life and has frequently abused human rights, how can we expect them to protect the interests of pandas” (Lin W.-c. , 2009)


The Chinese panda diplomacy has been criticized by many experts who claim that China’s reputation is severely marred by the errors and violations of human rights that it has committed. The usage of the panda had also been criticized earlier by many organizations because they were using pandas unsparingly as commercial goods. Moreover, the leasing out of pandas to other countries is analogous to a publicity stunt which severely backfires since most of the attention (of the people and the media as well) is more focused on the child-like antics of the panda and comparatively less attention is given to the foreign policy and international interests of China.

If the People’s Republic of China wishes to make a more effective utilization of their soft power resources, they must focus more on the aspects which are not regulated by the government or any quasi- governmental agency. China can make use of their world-famous cuisine which is extremely popular. This can be done as cuisine is a tool which propagates culture without which soft power isn’t very powerful at all. In fact, it has been widely observed that countries with huge soft power resources are often the ones which have a very popular cuisine. Indian cuisine is arguably one of the most popular cuisines in the world along with that of America’s. To strengthen this example of the importance of cuisine, one may refer to the case of France which is supposed to be home to one of the finest cuisines in the world. Many countries, much like India, resort to the popularity of their festivals to build on their soft power resources. China can also make intelligent use of their festivals – like the Chinese New Year which is known to be quite eventful and crowd-pleasing – to propagate their culture and build on their soft power resources. It is only after China invests adequately in an all-round soft power resource package – instead of focussing on a one-dimensional, panda- centric approach – can they effectively and efficiently make use of their soft power.

On a concluding note, if China has to repair its image internationally, then the renting and leasing of pandas is certainly not adequate. Without fixing the wrongs it has committed in the past and paying reparations and compensations, it does not seem likely that China will be able to erase the image that it has already created for itself. China is less of a panda and more of what one may term as a “crouching tiger, hidden dragon”.


Most of the literature surrounding this topic focuses on the history and evolution of this unique practice of China involving the use of pandas as tools for diplomacy. There is a lot of material available on the recent panda deals made by China and its allies. However, there isn’t much information available on the negative effects of this form of diplomacy. For instance, whether such a practice is actually good for the endangered pandas ornot. A significant amount of the available literature focuses on the popularity of this unique form of diplomacy but very few throw light on its lack of efficiency.

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