China’s recent gifting of Er Shun and Da Mao, two Ailuropoda melanoleuca (Giant Pandas), to Canada has raised domestic and international eyebrows. It appears that China is seeking to curry international goodwill whereas Canada’s motives for acceptance appear unclear. A public move towards friendship with Canada is a signifier that China wants to continue to rehabilitate its image on the global stage. Harper’s acceptance comes at a time when his domestic unpopularity continues to rumble and relations between the two countries have historically been a little cool.

Image courtesy of Rob, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Rob, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Giant Pandas have been used in Chinese diplomacy since the Tang Dynasty (625- 705).  Giant Pandas are native only to China and, while having its roots in the ancient world, the policy has become increasingly a form of Chinese ‘soft power’ within the past century. The practice was revived in the 1940s and the role of panda ambassadors within the Cold War led some to comment that ‘pandas rather than Kissinger should have won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize’. At the height of the Cold War, the gifting of Ping Ping and An An to Moscow in 1957 and 1959 respectively reinforced an ideological commitment and alliance. But perhaps the pinnacle of panda diplomacy occurred 1972 with the gifting of a pair of pandas to the United States following Nixon’s visit, a huge step forward in Chinese-American but also Chinese-international relations. More recently the 2006 loaning of pandas to Taiwan (Tuan Tuan & Yuan Yuan’s name play on idea of ‘unity’) again reinforced the idea of extending the Chinese hand of friendship and goodwill, but also to extending its global influence and promoting its international image. Furthermore, the 2011 loans to the Edinburgh Zoo coincided with human rights outrage over the treatment of Ai WeiWei, Cameron’s visit to Beijing to discuss trade links, and the simultaneous signing of a $2.6 billion trade and investment deal, including support of the oil refinery at Grangemouth (Scotsman 2011). Therefore, often Chinese agendas coincide with the movement of pandas, whether to cement an ideological commitment, further trade links and economic deals, or detract unwanted attention away from human rights issues and promote a more positive international image.

Interestingly, Panda diplomacy also mirrors China’s economic change- the 1980’s saw a distinct move from the gifting of pandas to a more commercial diplomatic model based on their loaning or renting to foreign nations for a limited time with strict conditions. Although still interpreted as a gesture of goodwill on the part of the Chinese, this move to a capitalist model of loaning rather than gifting pandas means that they ultimately profit. On a more bizarre note, any pandas that are loaned (such as the hype surrounding the Edinburgh pandas ill fated mating ‘sponsored by lynx’ mating season) come with the condition that any offspring will become Chinese property.

However this (literal and metaphorical) form of ‘soft power’ is not quite as cuddly as one might first assume.  As a visual representation of Chinese culture, panda loaning usually coincides with trade agreements and acquiring international goodwill. Nevertheless it increasingly is used as an awkward masque of human right abuses, as well as the ever expanding Chinese economic and military might that at best raises global eyebrows. Acceptance of the Ailuropoda melanoleucas can be seen as accepting China’s stance on a variety of controversial issues, ranging from human rights to environmental abuses. As mentioned, the Scottish government came under fire for hugging pandas whilst the Tate Modern in London flew a banner to ‘free AiWeiWei’. For a traditionally neutral state like Canada it seems an odd choice to align itself so publically with a nation with such a chequered image. Particularly in the Canadian case it is the environmental concerns that China is seemingly ignoring that baffles some members of the public. There is also the issue of Harper himself. Defeated in a 2011 vote of no confidence, he, nor his party, are the most popular. His decision to meet with bears over Premiers and First Nations did not go down well.

2003 saw the first Chinese man in space; 2010 saw Beijing host the Olympics. China’s economic growth is astronomical; its foreign exchange reserves in excess of US $2.4 trillion are the largest in the world, and it has overtaken Germany as the world’s largest exporter. The idea of China ‘on the rose’ does little to dispel the hysteria surrounding the supposed replacement of the ‘Washington Consensus’ with a Beijing one.

Evolutionary theory suggests that giant pandas should not have made it this far. They are carnivores whose diet is made up of 99% bamboo, they lack camouflage and their genetic laziness means that they are pretty poor at reproducing. Animal rights issues aside, perhaps China would do better to let their panda diplomacy evolve to its natural conclusion.  Soft bear loans have been used as a deliberate foreign policy objective to stress a non-aggressive and peaceful rise. However the black and white fur loans masque human rights issues and questionable economic practices. It may be better to view it not as Chinese altruism but as a Trojan horse.