Bear necessities: A closer look at panda diplomacy

Yang Guang, in China's Sichuan Province. Along with Tian Tian, Yang Guang is arriving at Edinburgh Zoo today
Yang Guang, in China's Sichuan Province. Along with Tian Tian, Yang Guang is arriving at Edinburgh Zoo today
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The much-heralded arrival of two giant pandas at Edinburgh Zoo is the latest example of panda diplomacy, finds Anna Burnside

ALEX Salmond, Gordon Brown, Boris Johnson, Nick Clegg and the Royal Family rarely make common cause. Yet, when it comes  to pandas, politicians are prepared to overlook partisan differences, park their reservations about China’s human rights record and work with anyone who might possibly be able to help bring the world’s most adorable mammal to the UK. And it works. Thanks to the efforts of Boris, Alex and the staff of Edinburgh Zoo, giant pandas Tian Tian and Yang Guang arrive in the city today.

These big cuddly symbols of Sino-British co-operation should, so the disparate lobbiers all hope, help cement trade links with the world’s most vibrant economy. At the moment, less than 3 per cent of British exports go to China. David Cameron wants to increase that to $100bn a year by 2015. The panda deal was signed at the same time as £2.6 billion of trade and investment, including support for the oil refinery at Grangemouth.

But the pandas come carrying both gifts and baggage. “The Chinese are known for panda diplomacy, it has a long history,” says Natascha Gentz, director of the Confucius Institute for Scotland. “It’s a manifestation of goodwill to collaborate with a country, a consolidation of partnership and friendship. Once relationships are consolidated, with high-level summits and mutual agreements, then they might choose that country to receive a panda.”

Henry Nicholls, author of The Way Of The Panda, says the financial benefits of such a deal can be immense. “Any time a panda loan is discussed, there is usually a load of other business deals on the table. It’s always implicit, it operates in that same sphere.”

Yet while Cameron said on his last trip to Beijing that economic freedoms should go “in step” with political reform, China’s treatment of Ai Weiwei, occupation of Tibet, disastrous track record on environmental issues and censorship of the internet has not been a barrier to this particular piece of panda diplomacy. Before the bears had even touched down, Amnesty International and the Free Tibet movement were warning the government not to let the pandas distract them from these tough issues.

Gentz thinks this is overstating the gesture’s importance. “The UK and Scotland are determined to collaborate with China on various levels, and the pandas are a symbol of this, but I wouldn’t think they are seen as a bargaining chip or leverage for the Chinese government. A huge number of countries across the world have accepted pandas as tokens of friendship.”

It’s been 17 years since the British public had a chance to ooh and aah over one of these black and white sweethearts. Ming Ming, one of the star attractions at London Zoo, went back to China in 1994. Edinburgh Zoo, which has spent five years negotiating this deal, expects to double its number of visitors in the pandas’ first year, then see another spike if the bears manage to breed. When Adelaide Zoo took delivery of Wang-Wang and Funi in 2009 the pair contributed an estimated A$57 million (£34m) into the South Australian economy that year. While no-one has done the actual sums or predicted how much cash the bears might bring to the capital, the city has its fingers crossed for a similar pay day.

These putative benefits come at considerable cost. Tian Tian and Yang Guang are on loan from China for ten years, at an annual fee of $1 million (£600,000). It will cost £70,000 a year to keep them in bamboo, imported from the Netherlands. Converting the old gorilla house into their luxurious new enclosure, with a pool and cave, surrounded by bulletproof glass, has already cost £300,000, plus an extra £28,000 when visiting Chinese zoologists demanded last-minute upgrades. This has been funded, in part, by a £2m loan from Lloyds Banking Group. “They have based their figures on conservative estimates of visitor numbers,” says a zoo spokesman. “They are happy with their business plan.”

Should Tian Tian and Yang Guang succeed in making sweet panda music – and the precedents are good, seven-year-old Tian Tian gave birth to twins in 2009 – the resulting cub will be Chinese property. The zoo should, however, have time to cash in before the youngster must return to the People’s Republic. It will keep the cub for a specified time, probably two years, during which time it can expect a surge of visitors.

All these logistical details are specified in the fat “panda contract” which every zoo that borrows pandas from China has to sign. According to Nicholls, this covers “every single thing: feeding, staffing, the enclosure, the research. There is no way they will send a panda until they are happy with everything, and they monitor it regularly”. These documents are “top, top secret” – despite his extensive research, Nicholls has never seen one.

The benefits for the zoo are clear and the website where visitors can book a slot to see the pandas has already crashed. As well as the increase in footfall and a black-and-white takeover of the gift shop, having one of the world’s most iconic endangered species enhances any zoo’s reputation for conservation and research.

The Queen and the Prime Minister, however, do not spend valuable time schmoozing and arm-twisting to make a zoo look good. “Pandas are not just zoological entities,” says Nicholls. “They are political animals, economic drivers, they are reputation raisers, they are the most amazing PR tool. Pandas are a press officer’s dream. You don’t even have to do anything.”

The use of pandas as diplomatic sweeteners extends back to the Tang dynasty when, in the mid-600s, Empress Wu Zeitan softened up the Japanese emperor with a pair of bears. The practice then fell out of favour for centuries during which China took giant pandas, which are unique to the mountainous bamboo forests of southern and central China, completely for granted. Then in the 1950s, under Chairman Mao, they were adopted as a “national treasure”. American historian Elena Songster posits that, with its absence of cultural baggage and links with China’s imperial past, to say nothing of its black eyes and unfeasibly cute offspring, the panda was perfectly qualified for the job.

Pandas became a potent symbol of conservation in 1961, when the World Wildlife Fund adopted the bear as its official logo and were, at a time when China was an international persona non grata, a valuable form of currency. Between 1958 and the 1982, China gifted 23 of them to nine countries, including the UK. With Sino-American relations at an all-time low, in 1973, Richard Nixon was the first American president to visit the People’s Republic. He returned with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, as well as a hugely enhanced status as a player on the world stage.

The pandas caused such a sensation at Washington’s National Zoo that even Ted Heath noticed. He visited China the following year, determined to secure his own cuddly black-and-white career boosters. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching were soon on their way.

“In the 1970s China was not in the powerful position it is in today,” says Nicholls. “They were on the back foot.” Panda largesse was one way they countered this. But by the mid-1980s their generosity had run out. “They adopted capitalist principles and followed a more commercial model.” This involved renting pandas for short periods, for enormous fees, to pretty much any zoo with sufficiently deep pockets.

For Nicholls, this led to a “circus-type arrangement. In the US, it fell foul of the Endangered Species Act. There was no breeding programme, no benefit to wild pandas.” Imports to the US were banned for five years.

Since those dark days there have been scientific breakthroughs and a change of direction from the Chinese government. Breeding – an ongoing problem in this sexually inert species, which is only in season for one to four days a year – has become easier. Improvements in artificial insemination, research into the importance of smell which helps pandas to mate naturally and a higher success rate in keeping twins – which account for half of all panda births – alive, all added up to a huge increase in the captive population. Estimates for the wild population vary between 1,600 and 3,000.

Geneticists have identified 300 captive pandas as the number required to sustain a healthy, self-sustaining population. “As long as they are managed properly, this means they will never become extinct in captivity,” says Nicholls. And now, with around that number in various zoological institutes across China, they are ready to send them out into the world again.

“They have nowhere to put them,” says Nicholls. “They can’t be introduced into the wild.” This was tried, in 1997, with disastrous results. Xiang-Xiang, a five-year-old male bred at Wolong, China’s biggest panda research centre, lasted for less than a year in the forests of Sichuan. His dead body was discovered with broken ribs and damaged internal organs. Experts think he was killed in a fight with a wild panda.

Panda diplomacy has had an ethical makeover for the 21st century, although the Beijing government is still a master of manipulation. Their gift of bears named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan – both meaning “unify” – to the pro-independence Taiwanese government in 2006 showed their ruthlessness in using cuddly animals for their own aggressive self-interest. But that controversy is an exception and, with most panda loans, the emphasis is on conservation, with an extensive research condition attached to each transaction. Edinburgh is joining a ten-year joint investigation to help human-bred pandas survive in the wild.

While this is recognised as an improvement on what Nicholls calls the “seedy” practices of the 1980s, it’s far from perfect. “Captive institutions look better if they’re working on reintroduction but we don’t know if this is beneficial to wild pandas. What if there is not sufficient habitat to support an increased population? It would inject useful genetic diversity but would the money be more beneficial spent on wild pandas rather than research?”

He identifies protecting their habitat, curtailing the logging industry eating their forests and clamping down on poaching as direct ways to help. “There has got to be a more efficient way to spend the money.”

These are issues for the longer term. Today is for the hugh hoohah of Tian Tian and Yang Guang’s arrival. The extent of the uproar has astonished even panda-weary Nicholls. “I am still surprised at the level of interest, the coverage all over the world. They’re just a couple of bears.”