Panda politics: the hard truth about China’s cuddliest diplomat
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A traditional Chinese gong clangs. Adoring sighs break out as a red curtain is pulled aside. Behind it are China’s newest ambassadors to the west — a pair of chubby black-and-white bears sitting on their haunches munching bamboo stalks.
Standing in front of the glass just metres from the pandas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel beams and pumps her hands up and down like an excited schoolchild. Beside her, Chinese President Xi Jinping watches like a proud parent as Merkel coos at the animals, loaned by the Chinese government to Berlin’s Tierpark Zoo for the next 15 years at an annual cost of $1m.
“This event is symbolic of relations between our two countries,” Merkel says as she introduces three-year-old Meng Meng (“little dream”) and her seven-year-old prospective mate Jiao Qing (“darling”). “We’ve worked very closely over the past year in the G20 framework and now we have two very pleasant diplomats here.”
This is panda diplomacy at its most sophisticated and successful. Xi and Merkel, leaders of the world’s first and third-largest trading nations, appeared with the bears in front of the world’s media in early July, just two days before a tumultuous G20 meeting in Berlin.
“On this particular state visit the main point was to show . . . how smooth the relationship was ahead of the G20, where Donald Trump was going to show up and not be anybody’s friend,” said one person involved in preparations for the visit on the German side. “That moment [of handing over the pandas] was when we celebrated how close our countries are.”
By entrusting Berlin with two “national treasures” and personally witnessing their unveiling, Xi was subtly signalling China’s belief that Germany has the potential to replace the US as leader of the western world, according to people familiar with the matter. It was a moment of high diplomatic theatre with an extremely political animal as the main protagonist.
Everything about Ailuropoda melanoleuca (literally “black-and-white cat-foot”) or da xiongmao (“big bear-cat” in Chinese) is laden with meaning and symbolism. The oldest extant species of bear, the panda is found only in a small strip of mountainous terrain on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau.
To many in the west, the animal represents wildlife conservation (a panda has been the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF, since its inception in 1961), poor sexual performance and perhaps comedic kung-fu cartoons. In China it is a majestic “national treasure” that embodies the country’s benign nature, uniqueness and ancient culture.
Far more money, time and effort has been spent on saving the giant panda from extinction than on any other animal. As such, it is considered a touchstone species — if humans can’t rescue such an icon with all of this exertion, then what hope is there for less charismatic fauna?
In dozens of interviews with Chinese and western experts, as well as trips to reserves and zoos in China and abroad, the FT has uncovered a more complicated picture than that presented by most western zoos, conservation groups or the Chinese government. At the heart of this story is a tension between the panda’s role as a political symbol of China’s power and its global role as an icon of conservation.
“In some ways the panda is the luckiest species on earth — but in other ways it is not lucky at all,” says Professor Wang Dajun, a wild-panda expert at Peking University. “Humans want to protect pandas not for scientific reasons, or because they are ecologically important, but because they have cute faces and they are politically important.”
China now has the world’s second-largest economy and second-largest military budget. It is seen as a superpower in waiting, if not yet in fact. But in terms of “soft power” — the ability to get other countries to like you, or at least do what you want without coercion or bribes — China remains a weakling. This is something it wants to change.
According to the classic definition of soft power coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye in the early 1990s, a country makes itself attractive in three main ways: through its culture, its political institutions and its foreign policy. The US has been the most successful nation in history in projecting soft power but others, including the UK, have also fostered it over the centuries.
Ancient imperial China ruled vast swathes of Asia through cultural and political attraction but until recently few countries have been drawn to modern China’s political system or its foreign policy. That leaves its rich and ancient culture and its cultural symbols, such as the panda.
Chinese state media describe the giant panda as one of President Xi’s most “powerful weapons” in his effort to build soft power. Through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (all of which are blocked in China) state media pump out countless videos of cute panda antics in an attempt to make China look soft and cuddly to a global audience.
Politicians all over the world often assist them in this propaganda effort. Apart from Merkel, pandas have been photo-opportunity props for leaders ranging from former UK prime minister Edward Heath to Michelle Obama, Justin Trudeau, Bill Clinton, François Hollande and the queen of Spain.
Our universal love of pandas has even prompted neurologists to investigate why humans find these animals so damn cute. The theory (known in German as kindchenschema) is that their resemblance to human infants — fat cheeks, waddling gait, snub noses and oversized eyes — triggers the same circuitry in our brains as babies. “For China, pandas are the equivalent of the British royal family,” Nye tells the FT. “Like the royals, they are a terrific asset because you can put them on display. You trot them around the world and they add an enormous amount to the country’s soft power.”
Part of the panda’s clout derives from its international role as a symbol of conservation. Late last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global authority on endangered species, officially downgraded the animal from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in what was ostensibly a validation of China’s decades-long effort to save its national icon from extinction.
But the Chinese government did not see it that way. According to five people familiar with the matter, Chinese officials were livid about the decision and have been furiously lobbying for a reversal ever since. The authorities worry the downgrade makes pandas less valuable, from both a financial and political perspective, and could threaten tourism revenues and the business of panda loans to foreign countries. “There was huge anger about [the panda being downgraded] because it makes pandas less important, and makes it harder to raise money and draw attention to them,” said one of the five people familiar with the government’s reaction.
The IUCN’s decision was a purely scientific one based on the Chinese government’s own official data, which show a stable and growing population of pandas in the wild, as well as a steadily regenerating habitat. But much of that data and the methodology by which they are collected are shrouded in secrecy. Even the official population of pandas in the wild — a ludicrously precise 1,864 according to a 2015 census — is described as a “political number” by top Chinese scientists.
These scientists, who asked not to be named for fear of angering the authorities and jeopardising their careers, worry that the IUCN downgrade is based on a deceptively rosy picture painted by Chinese officials that does not accurately reflect the deteriorating situation for pandas in the wild.
Foreign zoos and governments send large sums of money (the standard agreement is $1m per pair of pandas, per year) to China for “conservation”, and rely on this same optimistic picture from the Chinese government to assess its success. They have no say over where their money goes and hardly any idea how it is actually spent.
Meanwhile, China’s breeding facilities have become virtual “panda mills”, pumping out far more animals than scientists say are necessary to maintain genetic diversity or viability of the species in captivity. The captive panda population has doubled in less than a decade to more than 510 bears today, but attempts to reintroduce pandas to the wild have so far failed. This is partly because the animals born in captivity have limited survival skills but also because human activity continues to degrade their natural habitat in south-western China.
So, the ruling Communist party has put the surplus bears to work as soft-power ambassadors — the symbol of Chinese beneficence towards countries it considers friendly and important.
Perched on the edge of a steep valley in the remote mountains of western Sichuan province stands an extraordinary wooden building — part European gothic cathedral and part traditional Chinese courtyard complex. Built in 1839 by French Catholic missionaries, this was the home of Father Jean Pierre Armand David, an avid zoologist and botanist who, in 1869, became the first westerner to “discover” the giant panda, when local hunters brought him the carcass of a young “black and white bear”.
In fact, the first recorded example of panda diplomacy dates back much further to 685 AD, when Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty presented a pair of live bears to neighbouring Japan. But there are surprisingly few other historical mentions of the panda until Father David’s encounter set off a frenzy of international interest that eventually led to its role as an emissary of the Chinese state.
In the late 1920s, the sons of the first President Roosevelt, Kermit and Teddy Jr, led an expedition to Sichuan to shoot a panda, which they skinned and sent to the Chicago Field Museum. Then, in 1936, US adventurer Ruth Harkness sparked a wave of panda-mania after she smuggled a live baby panda disguised as a puppy to the US.
In the first modern example of the panda as an explicit political gift, the wife of Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek presented a pair of the animals — named Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah — to the Bronx Zoo in 1941 to thank the US for war-time aid in fighting the occupying Japanese. And after the communists came to power in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong resurrected the practice of gifting pandas to favoured allies — in his case North Korea and the Soviet Union.
This marked the first of roughly five phases of panda diplomacy that have closely mirrored the momentous changes China itself has undergone. These can be broadly categorised as the communist, rapprochement, capitalist, conservation and soft-power phases.
The second phase began in 1972, during President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China, when a pair of pandas arrived at Washington DC’s National Zoo to mark rapprochement with the capitalist west. The bears prompted a renewed outpouring of “pandamonium” in America and, over the next decade, China sent more than a dozen bears to countries including the US, the UK, Japan, France, Germany, Spain and Mexico.
The capitalist phase began in the early 1980s, echoing the get-rich-quick market reforms transforming China at the time. This era involved highly lucrative short-term loans in which western zoos, primarily in the US, rented pandas to attract crowds and make money.
Eventually, the US Fish and Wildlife Service banned the short-term import of pandas and the purely commercial era of panda diplomacy gradually ended. But demand from zoos and the public remained extremely high, as did China’s desire to exploit this goodwill. In 1996, the San Diego Zoo agreed to take a pair of pandas on a 12-year “research loan”, at the cost of $1m a year. This pioneering arrangement satisfied China, which no longer wanted to give away the animals in perpetuity, while mollifying conservationists, who complained the bears were being exploited for profit in violation of several US laws. The agreement launched the conservation phase of panda diplomacy and became the model for all future panda loans.
It is hard to pinpoint when panda diplomacy became such an explicit vehicle for soft power, but in the past few years the emphasis has clearly shifted away from conservation and back towards the political symbolism of the panda.
“Today, the political and diplomatic message of the panda is undermining the benevolent conservation message,” says Henry Nicholls, author of The Way of the Panda: the Curious History of China’s Political Animal. “This shift . . . is the result of very deliberate high-level policy decisions in China and that is visible in the data.”
As recently as the middle of 2015, there were just 42 pandas in zoos in 12 countries outside mainland China, according to official statistics. Today, there are 70 pandas in 20 countries outside China and several more loans have been agreed or are under negotiation. In just the past few months, China has sent — or promised to send — pandas to Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark and Indonesia.
The most important reason for the surge in panda emissaries is President Xi’s emphasis on enhancing Chinese soft power abroad. Xi personally signs off on every panda loan to a foreign country, according to several people with knowledge of the process. But before he decides whether to grant a country pandas or not, China requires the foreign head of state — the queen of Denmark, Angela Merkel herself — to ask for the bears in person. People involved say the convoluted negotiations and personal involvement of a foreign leader remind them of ancient rituals in which Chinese emperors would receive barbarian supplicants.
There is also a more practical and mercenary aspect to all this. Many of the loans extended in recent years have coincided with major trade deals between China and the recipient country. For example, Australia, France and Canada all received pandas after agreeing to sell nuclear technology and uranium to China. Scotland accepted a pair of pandas in 2011 as part of an agreement to share offshore drilling technology and supply salmon to China, while the Dutch loan this year came as the Netherlands agreed to supply advanced healthcare services.
“If you look where pandas are now in the world, you will see the countries that are important in terms of providing goods and services to China,” says Paul Jepson, a senior research fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University. “The way to think about it is as a ‘panda seal of approval’ — a gesture that signifies and seals a long-term trust relationship with another country.”
Implicit in the granting of pandas is the understanding that the country receiving them accepts China’s cherished political positions — that only the authoritarian Communist party has the right to rule the country, and that Tibet and democratic, separately governed Taiwan are integral parts of China.
Pandas can also be used to punish countries that stray from this unspoken agreement. In 2010, just two days after China warned President Obama not to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the first-ever surviving panda cubs born in Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo in Washington DC were repatriated on China’s orders. This punishment was possible because a clause in all panda-loan agreements stipulates that any cub born while abroad remains the property of China, as does any biological material from the animals such as blood, fur and semen.
Back in the mountains of Sichuan, Father David’s cathedral is today a little-visited tourist attraction celebrating Sino-French “panda love”, according to signs on its dusty exhibits. It sits on the fringe of the 40,000-hectare Fengtongzhai national nature reserve, one of 67 panda reserves scattered across the region that supposedly protect about a third of the animal’s remaining habitat.
By far the biggest threat to the giant panda’s survival in the wild is the loss of its natural habitat. A recent study by 11 Chinese and international scientists found that despite decades of conservation efforts, their total area of current habitat is 5 per cent smaller than it was in the mid-1970s, and there are three times as many roads as there were then. Livestock grazing causes enormous damage to the bamboo forests that provide 99 per cent of the animal’s diet.
Directly across the valley from the church, in an area outside the formal reserve but within a designated Unesco world heritage “panda sanctuary”, bare patches of regenerating scrub mark where Chinese logging companies have previously cut down large swathes of forest. Between 2009 and 2015, at least 3,200 acres of panda forest were cleared here to make way for commercial timber plantations, according to a Greenpeace report. Greenpeace says the logging in the area stopped after the report was published but other activity, including dam-building and mining, is rampant throughout the “sanctuary” and on the edges of most panda reserves.
As with so many things related to pandas, the precise boundaries of China’s nature reserves are often treated as state secrets by local governments, thus allowing them to move these boundaries when it suits them. The FT was able to obtain the exact co-ordinates of the Fengtongzhai reserve, which revealed a disjointed patchwork of supposedly protected zones drawn apparently intentionally to exclude most economic activity. On a recent visit, I drove for hours along a riverbed pockmarked with large shingle quarries and punctuated by hydro-electric dams, cement plants, new tourist villages and even an enormous marble quarry.
Although overall panda habitat did increase very slightly from 2001 to 2013, fragmentation caused by roads, railways, dams, mining and other activity means the remaining pandas are isolated in more than 30 separate groups, most of which have fewer than 10 individual bears.
“When I think about the long-term fate of the panda then I’m not very optimistic,” says Fan Zhiyong, a scientist working for the WWF in China. “We’ve seen a 200 per cent increase in fragmentation in the past 10 years and this will only get worse in the next 10 years. Even though the overall habitat area looks quite big, if the pandas can’t get to each other because roads and humans are in the way, they will still disappear.”
In March, the Chinese government announced plans to merge the existing panda reserves to form an enormous national park three times the size of Yellowstone in the US. Scientists and conservationists have cautiously welcomed the plan but some have raised serious concerns about its viability and even suggested it could make things worse.
The proposal calls for the forced relocation of at least 170,000 people, and one of its main objectives is to promote tourism throughout the area. “Tourism is probably the main threat to the giant panda and its habitat, and the biggest potential problem with this reserve proposal is it could emphasise tourist development at the expense of conservation. This could have a huge negative impact on the panda population,” says Peking University’s Wang.
Government propaganda posters across the region suggest Wang is right to be concerned. “Ecology should enrich the masses” reads one billboard. “Make the region beautiful and green so we can turn green into gold!” says another.
Yet, outside the tiny scientific community, conservation for its own sake is not a popular goal in China. More pandas in the wild are often viewed as a wasted resource, since tourists cannot see them and they do not bring additional revenues. “I think there are enough pandas already,” says Shu Bing, a local who drives tourists through the area for a living and who says his view is widely shared by ordinary people and government officials. “We can already go look at them in lots of zoos, so why do we need any more?”
This does not mean the Chinese government is indifferent to the fate of the panda. In fact, the animal’s political significance ensures it receives a level of attention that is unheard of in almost any other country, or for any other species.
In 2012, the WWF conducted its own survey of 12 endangered animals in China and found the populations of four of these species — the panda, Asian elephant, crested ibis and Pere David deer (named after the same Father David who discovered the panda) — had started to recover in the wild, while the other eight continued to decline at a rapid rate.
All of the recovering animals have some degree of political importance for China. For example, the crested ibis is a traditionally revered national treasure in Japan and its extinction would be a diplomatic headache for Beijing. But for less political species such as musk deer, pangolins and various amphibians, Beijing has shown little interest in protecting their habitats or reviving their crashing populations. Even for the panda, the priorities of economic development often clash with the need to protect its habitat.
Western zoos and governments that manage to secure panda loans usually claim they are making huge contributions to conserving pandas in the wild. The standard panda contract states that 70 per cent of the annual $1m fee should go to the “conservation of the giant panda in China”, but foreigners have no say over how this money is spent. “In the past, definitely, some of this money was stolen and squirrelled away, and even today, foreign zoos and governments have no idea where that money goes,” says Nicholls, the author and panda expert.
In the heart of the Fengtongzhai reserve, I visited a collection of derelict buildings, including abandoned offices and a large empty structure marked “animal rescue center”, tokens of where at least some of the “conservation” money has gone.
“The money from these loans is supposed to go to conservation but that isn’t happening,” says Kati Loeffler, a panda expert who worked full-time in China from 2005 until 2011. “There are hardly any park rangers, they have no equipment and there is barely any implementation or enforcement of the rules in these reserves. There are lots of empty buildings that they label as research labs.”
A similar lack of transparency surrounds the true number of pandas that remain in the wild. China has conducted four censuses over the past 40 years but Chinese scientists involved in the process raise troubling questions. “The methodology is a black box and everything apart from the final number they publish is regarded as virtually a state secret,” says one scientist who asked not to be named because they did not want to lose their job for speaking about politically sensitive matters. “That final number must be politically correct, and not decided by the scientists based purely on their results but by higher-level party officials.”
In the mid-1990s, the Chinese government quietly reached out to artificial insemination and husbandry experts at the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, and asked for help in hitting what was seen as a wildly ambitious target of 300 captive bears. At the time, there were only about 100 pandas in captivity, and Chinese scientists would frequently snatch pandas from the wild to boost the number.
The Chinese government no longer acknowledges this crucial US contribution, but by 2004 the collaboration began to yield piles of baby pandas. When China blew past its original target of 300 bears about five years ago, the target was raised to 500. Last month, Chinese state media declared the 2017 breeding season, with 42 surviving cubs, the most successful on record, bringing the total in captivity to at least 512. The target has now been raised again — to 600 bears.
Chinese and western experts all agree there is no scientific reason for producing so many animals in captivity if they cannot be released in the wild. But after struggling for so many years to produce even a few surviving cubs, the machinery of panda production is now almost unstoppable, thanks to financial incentives and rivalry between competing agencies.
China’s State Forestry Administration (SFA) is mainly responsible for pandas in the wild, while the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (Mohurd) oversees most of those living in zoos. Both run large breeding centres and they compete fiercely for the bonuses the government pays for each surviving cub.
In order to ensure maximum genetic diversity, mating pandas are supposed to be matched using the “panda studbook” — a record of every panda ever born in captivity. But the SFA and Mohurd rarely allow their panda populations to mate with each other, and in recent years the Chinese government has kept the studbook secret from all but a handful of approved scientists.
Several people who have worked in China’s breeding centres say the facilities often operate as little more than “panda mills”, with productive females forced to give birth at a much higher rate than in the wild, and baby pandas taken from their mothers and raised mostly by humans.
A lack of focus on the animals’ welfare and behavioural development is partly to blame for the inability of captive bears to survive in the wild. “The facilities in China are overflowing with cubs,” says Loeffler. “They keep producing captive pandas because that’s all they know how to do, and then they have to find a market for them, which is why they have so many pandas to loan to other countries for political purposes.”
For foreign zoos and governments that borrow pandas, the process is like applying to host the Olympics. They must build special enclosures with elaborate facilities and pay for Chinese experts to oversee the bears. Berlin’s Tierpark Zoo spent about $10m on the new enclosure for Meng Meng and Jiao Qing, and must also pay large amounts for bamboo to feed the bears, on top of the annual $1m loan fee.
A key motivator is the mistaken belief that pandas will bring a huge windfall in ticket sales, as they did in the earlier days of panda diplomacy. “It is generally the case that zoos lose money on pandas,” says Ron Swaisgood, a panda expert at the San Diego Zoo who also chairs the IUCN’s giant panda expert team. “The costs of leasing, feeding, housing and handling pandas typically exceed the revenues they bring in, and the economics are similar around the world.”
Many zoos and governments remain keen to make a deal with China to receive these cuddly emissaries but the proliferation of politically charged panda loans has already lowered their value. Faced with a tortuous diplomatic negotiation process, many Beijing-based diplomats now dread the prospect of engaging in panda diplomacy. “I really hope we don’t do it,” says one European diplomat from a country that does not have pandas but may officially request them soon. “It’s just not worth the expense or the hassle.”
This illustrates the central problem of panda diplomacy today. The process has become onerous and expensive, the conservation benefits are dubious and there are now so many pandas outside China that more and more countries are likely to decide they would rather not bother. If that does happen, then not only will modern panda diplomacy have undermined, rather than enhanced, China’s soft power, it will have damaged this iconic animal’s chances of survival in the wild for nothing.
Chi Chi, the most famous panda in history
At the height of the cold war it was not just China that dabbled in panda diplomacy. Perhaps the most famous panda in history was a bear named Chi Chi that ended up in the London zoo almost by accident in 1958 and lived there until her death in 1972. For that entire time she was the only panda living in a western country.
Rather than a state gift from China, Chi Chi was one of three bears procured from the Beijing zoo in 1958 by an Austrian animal dealer called Heini Demmer, who swapped them for three giraffes, two rhinos, two hippos and two zebras. Chi Chi was originally intended for a US zoo but America had an embargo on all imports from Communist China so Demmer reached out to the director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, to see if he could convince his brother, secretary of state John Foster Dulles, to make an exception for Chi Chi.
The CIA archives show Dulles took the request surprisingly seriously, and although he was not ultimately able to convince his brother to change his mind, the agency put so much work into the effort that the director’s assistant earned the nickname “vice-president of pandas” from his colleagues.
After she arrived in London, Chi Chi became the original model for the WWF logo (on the group’s founding in 1961). She was also a focal point in relations between Britain and the USSR, which agreed in 1966 to host Chi Chi at the Moscow zoo in an attempt to get her to mate with the resident male panda An An.
The rendezvous was a disaster as Chi Chi showed no interest in her suitor, who promptly attacked her. This attempt at panda matchmaking coincided with two visits to Moscow by UK prime minister Harold Wilson and elicited great mirth and mockery in the British press.
One memorable cartoon in the Daily Mirror portrayed Soviet premier Sergei Kosygin as An An, scaling a tree in amorous pursuit of Harold Wilson as Chi Chi. Several more attempts to convince the pair to mate were unsuccessful and Chi Chi died childless in 1972. Today you can see Chi Chi’s stuffed remains on permanent display in the central hall café of London’s Natural History Museum.
Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Asia editor. Additional reporting by Tom Mitchell in Beijing
Illustration: Studio AKA
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