Fifty years ago this month, President Mao Zedong gave President Richard Nixon a promise: He would send two giant pandas to the United States.
Mao made this proclamation in February 1972, when Nixon visited China to begin a historic rapprochement. The message excited what New York Times described at the time as “polite warfare” among American zoos that fished to host the pandas, and initiated a half-century of so-called panda diplomacy between China and the United States.
But now a member of Congress from Nixon’s party is questioning whether to change panda diplomacy, aiming to send a message to China while hosting the Olympics.
Panda diplomacy, in its current form, works like this: China lends pandas to a zoo in the United States or another country, and zoos pay an annual fee – usually $ 500,000 to $ 1 million each – to keep the pandas for at least a few more. year. The animals serve as goodwill ambassadors for China while, experts said, softening the country’s authoritarian image and drawing attention away from its registration of human rights violations.
“It’s soft power,” said Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who specializes in Chinese and foreign policy.
“Pandas are very cute and lovable,” he said, “so it fits into that kind of friendship diplomacy picture.”
But now a bill in Congress is aimed at this long-standing arrangement – specifically the provision that panda cubs born abroad must be sent to China within a few years.
“We have to think out of the box in terms of dealing with their aggression,” the rep said. Nancy Mace, RS.C., in an interview with reference to the Chinese government.
Legislation faces a narrow path in the House, which is controlled by the Democrats, and it was not clear how much of an effect it could have had for China arranging pawnshops directly with zoos and not with the US government.
Mace, who sponsored the bill, said she hoped it would send a message to China during the Winter Games in Beijing that “some of their aggression is not okay” and that pandas should not be used as window dressing.
The bill cites China’s threats against Taiwan, its repression of dissent in Hong Kong and its “crimes against humanity” against the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in the northwestern Xinjiang region. President Joe Biden has called the actions of the government in Xinjiang a genocide, as did the Trump administration, citing the use of internment camps and forced sterilization.
The Chinese Embassy responded to a request for comment by referring to a statement made by the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, to The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina. “We have nothing but success with our giant panda program,” a zoo spokesman said.
The National Zoo in Washington is one of three zoos in the United States that have pandas; the others are Atlanta Zoo and Memphis Zoo. Representatives of zoos declined to comment.
China updated its panda protocols in 1984 to stipulate that pandas would be offered on 10-year loans, not forever, as with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the pandas China sent to the National Zoo in April 1972. (Nixon retaliated of sends China a pair of musk oxen.)
When a panda cub is born in the United States, a zoo must pay China a one-time fee of $ 400,000. Most of the pandas are shipped to China within a few years, although the age at which this happens varies by contract. Three pandas born in the United States remain in U.S. zoos: Xiao Qi Ji, who was born at the National Zoo in 2020, and Ya Lun and Xi Lun, twins who were born at the Zoo Atlanta in 2016.
In part because of the central role they play in U.S.-China geopolitics, pandas have benefited from quality medical treatment and breeding and research efforts at facilities around the world. U.S. zoos, in turn, have benefited from the increased pedestrian traffic and revenue generated by pandas, helping to offset the cost of acquiring and keeping the animals.
In 2016, the giant panda was removed from the endangered list and upgraded to “vulnerable” status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As the panda’s survival prospects have improved, experts said, China’s approach to panda diplomacy has changed, with animals coming to serve as more of a shield for China’s human rights abuses and a tool to project soft power.
Susan Shirk, president of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said if Mace’s bill was passed, it could hurt “mutually beneficial” cooperation between panda conservationists around the world.
“Pandas should be bred on the basis of science,” she said, “instead of using it as a form of leverage.”
Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said his organization did not support Mace’s bill. “This legislation would risk ending a long-standing program that has contributed to the conservation of wild pandas,” he said in a statement on February 7.
The San Diego Zoo had pandas from 1996 to 2019 when the contract with China ended. Donald Lindburg, the zoo’s former director of giant pandas ‘research, said the animals’ lasting appeal to both the zoo and its visitors was simple.
“They were very popular, and many, many people came to see them,” he said. “They are beautiful.”