Is Nicola Sturgeon at risk from the 'curse' of China's panda diplomacy? – Alastair Stewart
Edinburgh Zoo's Yang Guang and Tian Tian are part of a proud tradition of Chinese panda diplomacy. But it can be a bit of a jinx for global leaders, so Nicola Sturgeon should perhaps be wary.
When President Nixon visited China in 1972, Chairman Mao promised to send two pandas to an American zoo to reaffirm diplomatic ties. Two months after Nixon's landmark trip, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling arrived at the National Zoo in Washington.
The real smoking gun of the Nixon tapes was about pandas. Douglas Brinkley and Luke A Nichter's book, The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, related the makings of a good old-fashioned sex scandal:
Nixon: The problem with, uh... the problem, however, with pandas is that they don't know how to mate. The only way they learn how is to watch other pandas mate. You see?
Crosby Noyes: [laughs]
Nixon: And, so they're keeping them there a little while – these are younger ones –
Noyes: I see.
Nixon: ...to sort of learn, you know, how it's done.
Sadly it was Watergate, not Pandagate, that brought down the president. But it did begin the panda curse; world leaders who receive pandas have a tendency to end up being forced out of office shortly afterwards.
Gifts of giant pandas to zoos formed an essential part of Chinese diplomacy from 1941. The idea was to normalise economic, cultural and political ties with a gesture of friendship. By 1984 the practice had partly contributed to pandas becoming an endangered species.
Japanese premier Kakuei Tanaka was given Lan Lan and Kang Kang in 1971. But by 1974, the prime minister was looking for a new enclosure himself after accepting a bribe from the Lockheed Corporation (as did Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, one of the co-founders of the World Wildlife Fund).
Prime Minister Ted Heath asked for a panda loan during his 1974 visit to China. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching arrived at London Zoo a few weeks later. Heath failed to win a second-term in office in 1974 and was promptly booted from his other enclosure as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975.
But he did almost buck the trend: Heath travelled to China in December 1990 and secured the loan of a female panda to London Zoo for an international breeding project.
Ming Ming was the first panda the Chinese sent to a foreign zoo to breed and not as a political gift. She did, however, nearly cause a diplomatic spat. Bao Bao, London Zoo's resident male, badly injured her and Ming Ming returned to China after they failed to produce any cubs.
Margaret Thatcher, with predictable scepticism, took a dim view of panda diplomacy.
The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC was interested in borrowing London Zoo's male panda to mate with their resident female. The zoo was in financial difficulties and its president, Lord Zuckerman, suggested the Prime Minister might want to make the panda swap in order to “benefit Anglo-American relations”. He went further and concluded she “might like to take the panda in the back of her Concorde”.
“I am not taking a panda with me. Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!” she responded. 'Not' was underscored twice. Zuckerman pursued the issue the following year, but Thatcher would not budge: “The history of pandas as gifts is unlucky.”
In 1984, China amended its panda protocols to only offer 10-year loans for an annual fee of a million dollars to support conservation, welfare and research. Cubs produced from loaned pandas are classified as Chinese citizens. As of 2007, the Chinese government said pandas would only be lent out for breeding and biological research.
On a visit in 2012, David Cameron dodged a panda incident, even if he did offend his hosts by wearing a red poppy (taken as an allusion to the Opium Wars). He supported Edinburgh Zoo's bid for a panda pair, but the long paw got him with Brexit in 2016.
The Huffington Post jokingly reported that Chinese locals confused his current successor with a rare blonde panda.
The Advertising Standards Authority rapped Alex Salmond's Scottish government for claiming the Edinburgh Zoo pandas were a "gift" to Scotland from China. It decided that the 10-year deal was a commercial agreement, one which (literally) arrived in a FedEx Panda Express plane.
The same pair also became an unlikely sticking point in the independence referendum. Unionists claimed custody of the pandas could be in question because the pandas were given to the UK, not Scotland. Mr Salmond may technically have fallen foul of the curse, too.
So what of the current First Minister? Edinburgh Zoo expects to agree on a lease extension for the giant pandas. Even if panda diplomacy is less about gifting and more about renting, the benefits of 'pandanomics' are tangible.
CNN reports that Beijing's panda hires have been to countries that signed significant trade and foreign investment deals with China. The 2011 Edinburgh panda deal coincided with Chinese commercial contracts with the UK worth an estimated £2.6 billion. The former First Minister declared that even if “one per cent of the people of China decide to eat Scottish salmon, then we'll have to double production in Scotland”.
Chinese soft power is unlikely to disappear. Its foreign policy is decidedly less cuddly than its biggest cultural export.
The World Wildlife Fund have said there are more than 1,800 pandas alive worldwide and this year they moved from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’, thanks to breeding efforts.
How any future panda deal affects Nicola Sturgeon remains to be seen. She reportedly insisted on a new enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo over noise concerns from a nearby construction site.
But there are other jinxed animals. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China gave Hong Kong five Chinese sturgeons…
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.