Fifty years later, some are questioning the value of “panda diplomacy” between the US and China | Panda Anku

Fifty years ago this month, Chairman Mao made a promise to President Richard M. Nixon: He would send two giant pandas to the United States.

Mao made this proclamation in February 1972 when Nixon was visiting China to begin a historic approach. The announcement sparked what the New York Times called “polite warfare” among American zoos trying to house the pandas, and ushered in a half-century of so-called panda diplomacy between China and the United States.

But now a congressman from Nixon’s party is questioning whether panda diplomacy needs to change, aiming to send a message to China while it hosts the Olympics.

In its current form, panda diplomacy works like this: China lends pandas to a zoo in the United States or another country, and the zoo pays an annual fee — typically $500,000 to $1 million — to protect the pandas for at least one year to keep a few years. The animals serve as ambassadors of goodwill for China, while softening the country’s authoritarian image and diverting attention from its record of human rights abuses, experts say.

“It’s soft power,” said Andrew J. Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University who specializes in Chinese politics and foreign policy.

“Pandas are very cute and lovable,” he said, “so it fits into this image of friendly diplomacy.”

But now a bill in Congress is targeting that longstanding agreement — specifically, requiring foreign-born panda cubs to be shipped to China within a few years.

“We have to think outside the box in dealing with their aggression,” said South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace in an interview referring to the Chinese government.

Legislation is on a narrow path in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, and it wasn’t clear how much impact China could have arranged panda loans directly with zoos rather than the US government.

Ms Mace, who sponsored the law, said she hoped it would send a message to China during the Beijing Winter Games that “some of their aggression is wrong” and that pandas should not be used as window displays.

The bill cites China’s threats against Taiwan, its repression of dissent in Hong Kong and its “crimes against humanity” against the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in the northwestern Xinjiang region. President Biden, like the Trump administration, has described the Xinjiang government’s actions as genocide and cited the use of detention centers and forced sterilizations.

The Chinese embassy responded to a request for comment by referring to a statement the National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, part of the Smithsonian, made to The Post and Courier of Charleston, SC: “We have nothing as a success with our giant panda program,” said a zoo spokeswoman.

The National Zoo is one of three zoos in the United States that have pandas; the others are the Atlanta Zoo and the Memphis Zoo. Zoo officials declined to comment.

China updated its panda protocols in 1984 to specify that pandas would be offered on 10-year loans, not permanent like Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the pandas China sent to the National Zoo in April 1972. (Nixon retorted sending a pair of musk oxen to China.)

Some zoos have paid a one-time fee of $400,000 for a US-born panda cub. Most US-born pandas are sent to China within a few years, although the age at which this happens varies by contract. Three US-born pandas remain in American zoos: Xiao Qi Ji, who was born at the National Zoo in 2020, and Ya Lun and Xi Lun, twins born at Zoo Atlanta in 2016.

Partly due to the central role they play in US-China geopolitics, pandas have benefited from quality medical care, breeding and research efforts at facilities around the world. American zoos, in turn, have benefited from the increased visitor traffic and revenue that pandas generate, which has helped offset the costs 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 prospects of survival have improved, experts said, China’s approach to panda diplomacy has changed, with the animals increasingly serving as a shield for China’s human rights abuses and a tool for projecting soft power.

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said if Ms Mace’s bill were passed, it could harm a “mutually beneficial” collaboration among panda conservationists around the world.

“Panda rearing should be based on science,” she said, “rather than using it as a form of leverage.”

Dan Ashe, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said his organization does not support Ms Mace’s bill.

“This legislation would risk ending a long-standing program that has helped conserve wild pandas,” he said in a statement Monday.

The San Diego Zoo had pandas from 1996 until 2019, when its contract with China ended. Donald Lindburg, the zoo’s former director of research on giant pandas, said the animals’ continued appeal is easy for both the zoo and its visitors.

“They were very popular and many, many people came to see them,” he said. “They are beautiful.”

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