For the Chinese government, pandas are more than just cute, cuddly animals. They are also agents of diplomacy, economics and geopolitical ambitions.
Thank You Beary Much: Giant pandas have been used as diplomatic gifts by China - the only country that is native to these animals - since at least the 7th century CE. As of 2018, China has pandas on loan or hire to 26 zoos in 18 countries.
Diplomacy: "Panda diplomacy" began in earnest in the mid-20th century, spearheaded by Mao's Communist Government. But back then, pandas were gifted to only allies - meaning, North Korea and the Soviet Union.
Then came US President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China, following which pandas arrived in the US. Soon, panda diplomacy went global, aided by China's rapprochement with the West and the emergence of the panda as a global conservation icon (it is still on the World Wildlife Fund logo).
Economics: In the 1980s, as capitalist market reforms arrived in mainland China, panda diplomacy changed. Now, pandas were loaned to Western zoos in short-term lucrative contracts (the process to land a contract "is like applying to host the Olympics"). The price could go up to $1m a year for a pair of bears. This money, the Chinese government says, is invested in conservation efforts (although there's no way of knowing where the money actually ends up).
Geopolitics: Why does China loan/gift pandas? To exert soft power. The list of countries pandas are gifted to overlaps copiously with the list of countries China has struck trade deals with. So, if you want pandas in your zoo, invest liberally in China. Or maybe have a lot of uranium reserves.
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