How China’s Pandas Praise and Punish

In 2007, two giant pandas, Wang Wang and Fu Ni, were on their way from China to Australia, and were recognised by then Chinese President Hu Jintao as ‘a symbol of friendship’ between the two nations. Fast forward to 2024, Wang Wang and Fu Ni’s lease is up, and this cuddly ‘sign of friendship’ could be all but gone by November.

As it stands, China has 63 giant pandas on loan to 19 countries. Whilst China used to give pandas as gifts, the country over the last few decades has opted to loan the animals instead (for a fee). Notably, this practice of loaning pandas has enabled China to express their feelings towards a nation in a rather unique way.

In 1972, two months after US President Richard Nixon ended almost three decades of isolation between the two nations, China sent a pair of 18-month-old pandas as a gift. However, by 2019, a time where relations between Beijing and the West were being strained, almost all pandas in the US had been recalled by China. Likewise, Pandas in the UK lived happily in Edinburgh Zoo until they were also recalled back in 2023. Indeed, in Australia, when Wang Wang and Fu Ni arrived in 2009, it came at a time when then Prime Minister John Howard was full of praise for China. Now, Australia’s pandas are due to leave.

As such, China’s ‘panda diplomacy’ has been a method of soft power to praise and punish nations. In this regard, there is still hope for new pandas to come to Adelaide Zoo. Chinese Premier Li Qiang is coming to Adelaide this weekend, and an announcement about pandas has been teased. Prime Minister Albanese has been very clear on his intention to defrost Australia-China relations. Whilst this does not mean changing Australia’s position of “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must”, there has nonetheless been tangible signs of a defrost. China has started importing Australian goods again and released journalist Cheng Lei.

Perhaps new pandas in Adelaide could be China’s latest olive branch.

15 June 2024 | Authored by Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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