Alpha Ngai: Panda Power

Aug 22, 2022
''Tuan Tuan'' and ''Yuan Yuan'' at the Taipei Zoo, symbols of Panda Power
Image: Alamy/ Pool photo by Kyodo News

Soft power was academically identified by the US political scientist, Joseph Nye, in 1990. It is a prominent aspect of how America projects itself internationally. China’s soft power is rather less developed and today it faces determined resistance. Yet, “panda power” is one form of Chinese soft power that has proved to be remarkably effective and resilient. 

In 1990, Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University explained in his book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power, that a state’s soft power arises from three aspects: its culture, its positive political values and the constructive elements of its foreign policy. He maintained that, through these means, other states can be persuaded to develop sustainable relationships founded on trust and respect. Nye has developed this concept further in his later works.

We recently began work on a project to investigate some critical aspects of China’s soft power. Although Nye’s work emphasised the international impact of US soft power, that same power has also had a profound impact, stretching back over 200 years, on shaping what America thinks of itself. This is far less discussed in the US, perhaps because the eye cannot see its own lashes. We mention this as we do think that China’s soft power impact on its own view of itself is a topic of central historical and contemporary interest.

Our research project has identified four primary soft power focal points. Three of these are: how soft power shapes perceptions of China within China (including in Hong Kong and Macao); how effectively the Chinese entertainment industry projects soft power; and the soft power role of China’s worldwide Confucius Institutes.

The fourth focus, which this article discusses, is a form of soft power that arises from a unique fauna advantage enjoyed by China: it is home to the giant panda. How China’s panda power emerged and how it has been used and developed over the last 80 years provides specific and more general insights related to how certain kinds of soft power can help shape particular outcomes, notwithstanding intense geopolitical tempests.

On December 31, 1941, the New York Times reported on the very recent delivery of “two loveable bundles of black and white fur” from China to the Bronx Zoo. They were sent in appreciation of American war relief measures during the Japanese invasion of China, which began in Manchuria, 1931. As it happened, the pandas arrived in the US shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Over 20 pandas were subsequently gifted to a number of countries, including the Soviet Union, North Korea, the US and the UK. After President Nixon’s remarkable visit to China in 1972, two more pandas were sent to America. Wherever they went, the pandas were eagerly welcomed.

In 1984, a policy change was applied by China’s leader Deng Xiaoping soon after he initiated the transformative “open door” strategy. Since then, pandas have primarily been leased to friendly states (for 10 – 15 years initially). The arrival of pandas has come to symbolise improved harmonious international relations between China and a wide range of countries. All pandas provided under this mechanism remain the property of China, as do all panda cubs born overseas.

In more recent years, panda transfers have marked improved relations with countries such as Australia, Canada, Finland and France. Transfers may also signal a regression in relations: one panda cub born in the US, Tai Shan, was repatriated to China soon after President Obama, having been warned not to, first met the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, in 2010. As it happens, Tai Shan had already stayed in the US longer than originally planned under the relevant agreement.

The delivery of pandas as a form of animal diplomacy is unparalleled in its success. Because pandas are so sedate, they are exceptionally well suited to living in a spacious captive environment when their needs are carefully attended to. There is no language barrier, of course. Better still, pandas possess many physical and behavioural traits, such as their big, round eyes and the upright sitting position they have while eating, that remind us of ourselves and in particular our children, invoking a sense of connection and sympathy. The lovable nature of these creatures serves to explain their universal appeal and, thus, their effectiveness as a bonding asset for China.

Even when geopolitical tensions increase, diplomacy based on panda power remains largely above the fray – once the pandas have taken up residence. Taiwan’s panda experience exemplifies this particularly well.

Cross-Strait relations were fraught long before the latest Taiwan Strait crisis triggered by the visit of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives to Taipei. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), as part of the Pan-Green coalition, first came to power in 2000. The DPP favours securing independent-nation status for Taiwan. In 2005, the DPP government rejected China’s offer of two pandas. Various rickety reasons for the rejection were advanced but it was plain that the spurning of the pandas was primarily politically motivated. After the Pan-Blue coalition, led by the Kuomintang, gained power a few years later, they accepted this offer in 2008, leading to two pandas taking up residence at the Taipei Zoo. The Kuomintang favours enduring, robust autonomy for Taiwan but it does not favour independence. As China regards Taiwan as being part of China, these pandas were gifted rather than leased (as were the pandas provided to Hong Kong in 1999 and 2007).

Since the subsequent return of power to the DPP in 2016, no move has been made to deport the pandas. In fact, the pandas are named ‘Tuan Tuan’ and ‘Yuan Yuan’ – which means reunion when put together. So why was a decision not promptly made by the DPP to order the pandas’ repatriation to the Mainland, once they had resumed power?

One reason concerns the economic success heralded by the pandas’ arrival. Whatever political differences China and Taiwan may have, certain inherently similar cultural roots have trumped the political standoff: the pandas have enjoyed overwhelming public popularity. They have propelled waves of panda-mania, encouraging hundreds of thousands of visits and the purchase of related products. Visitors are able to look at the pandas through a common cultural lens, turned dusty from neglect, and appreciate them as a symbol of primary affinity, which endures notwithstanding all the ongoing political hullabaloo. This points toward another important aspect of panda power: ejecting the pandas from Taiwan – or from any other jurisdiction – would almost certainly be wildly unpopular across any given political spectrum.

Apart from the very large number of panda-watchers, we should remember that the cause of expatriate pandas is continuously advanced by a specialised pressure group. Those responsible for caring for the pandas on a day-to-day basis have typically expressed elation over initial agreements and any following extensions. They support China’s basic panda policy. They love the animals as do so many of the local population. When Representative Nancy Mace introduced a bill to the US Congress in February this year that called for panda cubs born locally to belong to the US, American zoo officials voiced their dissent. Why, they wondered, would Washington want to threaten a long-standing, proven agreement which had delivered purposeful scientific cooperation and created delight for so many?

Of course, there is a political dimension to panda power. However, as Joseph Nye has explained, this is also the case with the best Hollywood films. Soft power exports are intrinsically multi-dimensional. Moreover, if you like, pandas simply present another aspect of China’s diverse personality. China and all the states it deals with each need to enrich their candid understanding of respective values and strengths – and weaknesses. While some might argue that pandas draw attention away from exigent worries about how China does or does not protect human rights, for example, we argue that the durability of this worldwide panda-loan system reminds us how positive forms of collaboration can work to drive mutually beneficial outcomes despite extant, serious differences.

Our world is pregnant with problems ranging from poverty to climate change that have implications for all. Heightened recognition that these problems are most effectively addressed through cooperative action is crucially needed. Given their potential to wet the glue that ties us all together, it is of central importance that pandas continue to be cherished worldwide, not only because they are exceptionally cute, but also because they are, in their own unique way, enlightening – provided we pay proper attention.

Alpha Ngai is a secondary school student studying at Chinese International School, Hong Kong. He is a recipient of the Hong Kong Outstanding Students Award and an appointed UNICEF Young Envoy. His interests are in international relations and moral philosophy.

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