Ian Williams Ian Williams

How China weaponises its cuddly giant pandas

Yang Guang at Edinburgh zoo in 2014 (Photo: Getty)

So Yang Guang and Tian Tian are on their way back to China. Rather like a pair of high-profile celebrities, the giant pandas travelled in convoy to Edinburgh airport this morning, with every detail of their last days in the UK scrutinised in dewy-eyed detail.

They’re not travelling business class, not quite, but they do have specially constructed metal crates apparently complete with sliding padlock doors, bespoke pee trays and removable screens so the keepers accompanying them can check on them during the flight. ‘I think they’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ll have a safe journey,’ said Rab Clark, the zoo’s blacksmith, who built the crates.

Arguably the giant panda, which China calls its ‘national treasure’, is the country’s most successful export

The duo were the last remaining giant pandas in the UK and had been at Edinburgh zoo for 12 years, two years longer than planned because of the pandemic. They were enormously popular, with a rush to see them in the weeks before they left. The precise time of their departure was kept secret until the last moment to reduce the chance of disruption from crowds of well-wishers or protest groups.

There is something adorable, almost intoxicating, about giant pandas – and especially about panda cubs. Breakfast television presenters the world over drool and coo from their sofas at the sight of them; politicians and celebrities compete to be photographed alongside them. I was once told during a visit to a panda research station in China’s Sichuan province (while shooting a report for a breakfast television show, of course) that they trigger the same neural reaction in us as the sight of human babies. Perhaps, but giant pandas are also cold and calculating instruments of Chinese diplomacy. Beijing has long treated them as envoys to countries deemed to be friends or to those with whom it is seeking influence. That is why Yang Guang and Tian Tian are the last giant pandas in the UK – relations with Beijing are not so great right now.

For the same reason, America is down to just four, all at Atlanta zoo; the national zoo in Washington returned its three last month. Xi Jinping did suggest though during his visit to San Francisco in November that more might be on the way – if America behaves itself. He called the pandas ‘envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples,’ telling business leaders, ‘We are ready to continue our cooperation with the United States on panda conservation and do our best to meet the wishes of the Californians so as to deepen the friendly ties between our two peoples.’

China is the only place in the world where giant pandas live in the wild. There are thought to be a little under 2,000 left, mostly in the mountainous areas of Sichuan province, in China’s south-west. But to describe the doling out of pandas to foreign zoos as conservation is a bit of stretch. Those which are lent overseas are bred at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a sprawling facility outside the provincial capital. Critics have accused China of neglecting conservation and the panda’s dwindling forest habitat, and instead breeding them solely for politics, prestige and profit.

China has a monopoly on giant panda production. The pandas in Edinburgh zoo, as with every other foreign zoo that hosts them, are rented from China. Zoos typically pay between $500,000 (£400,000) and a million dollars (£800,000) a year for the bears, which must be returned after an agreed period, together with any cubs they produce. Since the 1950s, China has strategically placed scores of giant pandas in countries around the world. In 1972, a pair of giant pandas were famously loaned to the national zoo in Washington as a symbol of rapprochement between Beijing and Richard Nixon’s America. These days, Xi Jinping is said to personally approve the placement of every panda.

When panda twins were born at Berlin zoo in 2019, a local newspaper asked its readers to suggest names. The most popular, according to Der Tagesspiegel, were ‘Hong’ and ‘Kong’, an apparent vote of support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. The zoo, Germany’s oldest and most respected, instead named them Meng Xiang and Meng Yuan, which translate roughly as ‘long-awaited dream’ and ‘dream come true’. In reality, the zoo had little choice but to ignore the newspaper if it wanted to keep the pandas. The twins were expected to be a magnet for visitors. Their parents were already the zoo’s most popular attraction, presented to Germany by China in 2017. Xi Jinping and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, were there for the handover, with Merkel calling the giant pandas special ambassadors between the two countries and speaking of a ‘new beginning’ in relations.

‘Panda diplomacy’ has been very successful. Arguably the giant panda, which China calls its ‘national treasure’, is the country’s most successful export. Forget about smartphones and toys, they cannot compete with those cuddly instruments of what diplomats call ‘soft power’. Pandas are made for it – quite literally in the case of China’s panda production system. Across the world, politicians as well as ordinary people have been wooed by their weaponised adorability. And why not? Influence is central to diplomacy. But those who work with pandas will remind you that behind that cuddly façade, they have sharp claws and can be extremely vicious.