Great Moments in Panda Diplomacy
-by Ernie Diaz
The Chinese have always known it’s better to give than receive. A generous gift ennobles the giver, and bounds the receiver with gentle ties of delight and gratitude. Gift exchange has marked the pleasant side of diplomacy since the King of Troy tried to buy some Greek-free peace by giving up the world’s most beautiful woman.
But the Chinese used this technique for more than a little goodwill. By giving a gift at once unique and utterly adorable, they psychologically disarmed panda-recipients. Who could remain suspicious of a country whose national symbol is the embodiment of cute and cuddly?
These days, China is no longer willing to make gifts of its some 1600 remaining xiongmao. Abroad, they remain as precious as ever, for like their homo sapien counterparts, the males quickly lose interest in breeding while in captivity. Nevertheless, the evolution of the PRC from panda-givers to panda-leasers speaks volumes about its changing global role.
685 Tang Empress Wuzetian sends a pair of giant pandas to the Mikado of Japan. Overwhelmed by the cutesiness, the Japanese rapidly adopt virtually every salient aspect of Chinese culture, from the writing to the chopsticks.
1936 Neo-colonialist William Harkness sets off for China to capture giant pandas, but finds only death in the bamboo forests. His New York fashionista wife Ruth manages to fulfill his dying wish and brings Su Lin, a three-pound panda cub, home to the United States. Su Lin rivals Seabiscuit in helping millions forget their great depression.
1941 Madame Chiang Kai Shek sends a pair of pandas to America, the imaginatively-named Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah. Still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor a few weeks before, America decides to reciprocate this well-timed gift with billions of dollars in aid to her husband.
1957 China gives its number one big buddy Soviet Russia Ping Ping the panda, the PRC’s first state gift sent abroad. Soon thereafter, the USSR launches Sputnik, giving it the world’s first satellite and the world’s cutest animal. The Cold War seems all but decided.
1965 Dan Dan arrives in the DPRK. Four more follow over the next fifteen years. China – Korea relations chill upon Kim Il Sung’s appearance at a state dinner in a gorgeous black and white fur cape, with matching hat.
1972 The peak of panda diplomacy. Mao sends Nixon home from his historic visit with Lingling and Xingxing. Tricky Dick somehow decides to reciprocate with a pair of musk oxen; one dies immediately, and the other loses all of its fur. While Americans are busy re-conceiving Red China as the home of pandas and Bruce Lee [what do they know from Hong Kong and the Mainland?], the Chinese puzzle over the West’s apparent esteem for diseased bovines.
1973 Insulted that the upstart Américains should receive pandas before them, the French throw a tantrum that doesn’t cease until Yanyan and Lili arrive safely at Marseilles.
1974 The English, oscillating between panda-monium and their usual reserve, send Prime Minister Edward Heath to China, “just to pop round for a pip pip and a cheerio”. Heath doesn’t overcome his lordly aplomb enow to mention pandas until the last night of the junket. The Chinese accede with the gifts of Chiachia and Chingching.
1984 To get rich is glorious; to give away priceless asset is ridiculous. China rediscovers capitalism and promptly switches from the “Have a panda!” to the “Lease a panda?” model. Yes sir, folks, just one million U.S. dollars gets you ten years of furry fun. Act now and get a free week’s supply of grade-A tender bamboo shoots.
1990 China refines the model with some brilliant PR. Here on in, the pandas will be loaned abroad in pairs for cooperative research with Chinese scientists. The fees amount to one million U.S. dollars per year, payable to China, for a research period of ten years. All offspring automatically become the property of the PRC. Long live science.
2006 China decides to once again make a present of a pair of pandas, to long-lost brother Taiwan. Cynics read a hidden motive in the pandas’ names, Tuantuan and Yuanyuan [tuanyuan can mean both “unity” and “family reunion”]. Debate rages on whether to accept, until China describes the gift as a “domestic transfer”. It falls upon Taiwanese Agriculture Deputy Lee Tao-Sheng to decline the pandas, citing the inappropriateness of a subtropical island as a home for pandas. The penguin exhibit at the Taipei Zoo re-opens a week later.
2008 Kung Fu Panda appears in DVD shops across China. Panda diplomacy comes full circle, as Hollywood guarantees that future generations will associate China’s symbol with wisecracking slackers who achieve success through just a montage-worth of hard work, a thoroughly American concept.
This article originally appeared in www.chinaexpat.com