April 14, 2023 - 1:00pm

A panda couple, Huan Huan and Yuan Zi, are set to occupy a French zoo park for another four years according to news this week, a development which will please Emmanuel Macron as much as anyone else.    

The extended lease for the two pandas was a quiet diplomatic victory for the French President on his official visit to China last week. While Macron’s recent remark about Europe not being America’s “vassal” sparked a storm of international controversy, at France’s Beauval Zoo there was a great sigh of relief. The zoo’s two panda superstars are staying until 2027. 

After that date, whether France will still boast giant pandas may depend on the temperature of Franco-Chinese relations. China’s “panda diplomacy” is a complex game that is difficult to decode. Often described as Chinese “soft power”, panda diplomacy uses the cuddly creatures as goodwill ambassadors that help China extend its economic and political influence globally. 

They are uniquely Chinese because their only natural habitats are the mountainous regions of their home country. Today, there are an estimated 1,900 pandas in the wild, and about 600 in zoos and breeding centres.

In many cases, the loan of a panda is a symbolic sweetener to Chinese trade deals. France, for example, originally received the animals after a deal to supply the country with uranium for nuclear power. Canada signed a uranium-for-panda agreement with China, too.

But what China gives, China can also take away. States keen to flatter Xi Jinping often find themselves the beneficiary of panda gifts. More hawkish nations can discover that the pandas in their zoos are suddenly recalled home.  

Norway learned this in 2011 after awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The pandas headed to a Norwegian zoo never arrived, going instead to Edinburgh. What’s more, China stopped buying Norwegian salmon and turned to Scotland for salmon imports. The Scots won a contract to supply China with Land Rovers and Confucius Institutes were set up at Scottish universities.  

In 2010, a panda called Tai Shan at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. was brought home to China. This was a direct response to Barack Obama receiving the Dalai Lama at the White House. In 2019, another two giant pandas were recalled from San Diego Zoo after Donald Trump stepped up his anti-Chinese trade rhetoric. The connection between pandas and politics is never made explicit, but is always understood tacitly. 

Historically, Chinese emperors gave panda bears as presents for many centuries. Under the Communist regime, Mao Zedong offered two giant pandas  — Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing — to the United States after then-president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. More recently, as China pursued its strategic interests in the Arctic region, notably Greenland, pandas arrived at Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark.  

Before the 1980s China gifted pandas, but today they are offered strictly on a loan basis. They are usually leased to the host country for roughly $1 million a year, plus the cost of building a panda facility. The leasing fees are said to cover the costs of giant panda “conservation” efforts in China. Animal activists have argued, however, that the creatures are often poorly treated in foreign zoos, and that China’s real motive for their leasing is political.  

For the host zoos, the arrival of a giant panda is a massive publicity coup that promises a huge financial boost. After the arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, the number of visitors soared by more than 50% and overall income increased by £5 million to £15 million. For zoos, pandas are, clearly, good for business. Other countries that have leased giant pandas include Australia, Finland, South Korea, Spain, Germany, and Belgium. Qatar received two pandas in 2022. 

Now that tensions are building again between the United States and China, it can be wondered how long giant pandas will remain in American zoos. Previously, there were pandas in zoos in four American cities — Washington D.C., Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego. The Memphis Zoo lost its panda this week when 22-year-old Ya Ya, apparently in poor health, was recalled home to China. Today, there are pandas in only two American zoos — Washington D.C. and Atlanta — though two adult pandas in the capital will likely go home by the end of this year. 

If more are brought back from American zoos this year, the reason for their return home will likely be geopolitical. That’s panda diplomacy for you. 

Matthew Fraser is a professor at the American University of Paris, his forthcoming book is Monumental Fury: The History of Iconoclasm and the Future of Our Past