At a dinner event in San Francisco on Nov. 15 with a swathe of US business leaders and political heavyweights, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) failed to deliver any tangible benefits that people had expected, nor did he offer reassurance to corporate leaders feeling uneasy about the prospects of the sputtering Chinese economy.
However, one of the highlights from the evening was that Xi called pandas “the ambassador of friendship,” hinting at the possibility that China could be willing to resume its “panda diplomacy” by sending more of the animals to the US.
Ever since then-US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the gift of two pandas to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo the same year, Beijing has adopted “panda diplomacy” by using the endangered black-and-white bears as tools for international “united front” work.
For the sake of wildlife conservation, Beijing announced that it would stop sending pandas abroad in 1982, and has suspended all leasing practices. The 60 or more pandas in zoos across the US and Europe are all loaned for “mating” or “conservation” purposes. The two pandas (later named Tuan Tuan [團團] and Yuan Yuan [圓圓], their names combined meaning “reunion” in Chinese) that were given to Taipei Zoo were offered as a gift for a mutual exchange of endangered animals.
Classified as an “endangered” species, pandas are expensive animals to keep. The US has to pay an annual rental fee of about US$500,000 to US$1 million, not to mention provisioning and regulatory services as well as providing a tailored environment and provision of fresh bamboo leaves. As a result, pandas come with a hefty price tag.
When Western countries and China were in their honeymoon period, people overlooked the economic burden that pandas bring. However, as the honeymoon bubble has burst, the global community no longer harbors delusions about China and in turn, pandas have gone out of favor.
In February, when a giant panda died of heart failure at Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, the incident triggered a wave of anger among Chinese nationalists on the Internet, accusing the zoo of “abuse.” Ya Ya (丫丫)who went to Memphis from Beijing Zoo in 2003, was expected to be returned to China in April, when the zoo’s loan agreement expired.
The National Zoo also returned its three pandas — Mei Xiang (美香), Tian Tian (添添) and their three-year-old male cub, Xiao Qi Ji (小奇蹟) — to China earlier this month. By the end of the year, only four giant pandas will remain in the US: the two adults and two cubs at Zoo Atlanta. The lease agreement is set to expire next year.
In the UK, the two giant pandas that have been housed at Edinburgh Zoo since 2011 will return to China this month, which would mean no more pandas in the UK. As people’s enthusiasm for pandas has taken a nosedive over the years, China’s global image and influence have done the same. The trend is marked contrast to that of “panda-huggers,” an epithet used to refer to those deemed too soft on China, one which no US politicians would want to be saddled with.
In July, Xi held a state banquet for former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, the meeting can be read as a move of the last panda huggers finding refuge in each others’ arms.
As the relationship between the US and China spirals downward, Xi is now looking to reboot panda diplomacy now that he has no cards up his sleeves. Even if pandas are successfully sent to the California Zoo, it is apparent that the days of the panda huggers are a thing of the past.
Chen Yung-chang is a company manager.
Translated by Rita Wang
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