Pandas of Peace: China’s Panda Diplomacy

In January of 2006, China made an historic offering of peace to its feuding neighbor Taiwan. This peace offering was two of China’s rare, world famous giant pandas. Although in the past pandas were commonly given away during negotiations, that process has been greatly slowed in conservation efforts as China’s resident wild panda population has dwindled below 2,000.

This is not the first time that pandas have been offered to Taiwan in peace negotiations. A previous offer was made in 1992, however this was rejected by Taiwan. Taiwan has not yet decided whether or not it will accept this current offer, as they are concerned about China’s views on Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The Giant Panda

The giant panda, or Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is instantly recognizable. These large creatures are known for their trademark white and black coloring, particularly the dark patches of fur around the eyes.

Much debate has gone on over the years over the taxonomy of the panda. Until recently it had not been decided whether pandas were more closely related to bears or raccoons. The current consensus based upon DNA studies shows that the giant panda is in fact a bear, as their common name panda bear states. No consensus has yet been given on the taxonomy of their relative the red panda, however.

Although bears are typically carnivores, pandas are largely herbivores. Their diet consists almost entirely of plants, most famously bamboo. The destruction of bamboo forests in China and elsewhere is one of the leading areas of concern of panda conservationists.

Historic Panda Gifts

Beginning in the 1960’s, pandas became a traditional gift from China to countries with whom they were in negotiation. Pandas are a uniquely Chinese animal, a rare creature that is at once a precious gift and a symbol of the giver. This practice has been dubbed by many as “Panda Diplomacy.”

Perhaps two of the world’s most famous pandas were Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, given to President Richard Nixon in 1972 during his groundbreaking negotiations with China, the first such negotiations made by the US since the success of Chairman Mao Tsetung’s Communist Revolution in 1949.

Knowing the historical import of the negotiations, the Nixon Administration struggled to decide upon its own gift to Chairman Mao. Numerous ideas were considered, including a return of Chinese artifacts and a corporate jet to be named “Gung Ho.” Ultimately, however, the gift decided upon was a pair of Alaskan musk oxen.

The pair of pandas given to the United States quickly became a national sensation. Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were placed in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where they became one of the zoo’s most popular attractions.

Over their years at the National Zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling had five offspring. However none of these offspring survived more than a few days, and the pair ultimately died childless. Ling-Ling died in 1992, while Hsing-Hsing survived until 1999 when he was euthanized, suffering from terminal kidney disease.

The National Zoo still has a pair of pandas residing there, however these new pandas are merely on a ten-year loan from China, costing the Zoo one million dollars a year to keep the pair there. Their names are Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. You can watch these pandas and their son Tai Shan via live webcam from the National Zoo’s official web site.

The United States was not the only country to receive pandas as gift. The United Kingdom received two pandas, Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia in 1974. Ten years prior they had received a female panda by the name of Ming-Ming to mate with their own local panda Bao Bao, however the pair fought and Ming-Ming was returned to China in disgrace.

Pandas in the United States also live in the San Diego and Atlanta Zoos. The San Diego Zoo was the location of the first successful panda birth in the western hemisphere: Hua Mei, born in 1999. Interestingly enough, it is rumored that one of the pandas China is offering Taiwan is the male offspring of Hua Mei, born in 2004.

Panda Conservation

In the 1960’s and 70’s, China was giving away pandas at an alarming rate. As the 70’s turned into the 80’s, panda enthusiasts and animal rights activists in China began discussing the need to preserve the panda in China.

As it stands right now, the giant panda is an endangered species. Only about 1600 of the animals exist in the wild in China. Another 125 are known to live in various zoos around the world. Thanks to conservationist efforts in China among other places, the world panda population is increasing, particularly in China.

Despite some gains, panda populations are still dangerously low, and continued effort is being made to preserve this unique species. Keeping conservation in mind, China continues the practice of Panda Diplomacy in limited capacity, one of their greatest symbols of friendship.

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