Paying With Pandas

Author: Elena Lagrange, Graphics: Akanksha Roy

The BRB Bottomline: China has a mechanism for handling political power and economic tradeoffs. The main component? Pandas.

In the realm of international diplomacy, the giant panda has long been a symbol of friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, “panda diplomacy” originally used pandas as diplomatic gifts meant to help foster a positive national image abroad. The practice of panda diplomacy has since evolved into a series of ten-year (extendable) loan agreements. Currently, China has 65 pandas loaned out to over 20 countries. While the convention ostensibly promotes trust between China and the recipient nation, recent developments raise questions about the deeper implications of this unique form of diplomacy.

Bears Abroad

In August, frequenters of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., faced some upsetting news: the three giant pandas currently housed at the zoo would return to China by the end of 2023. The National Zoo is not the first American zoo to part ways with these fan-favorite creatures in recent years — the San Diego Zoo’s pandas returned to China in 2019, and the Memphis Zoo returned their bears in April 2023.

Geopolitical Pandamonium

While on the surface, this may appear to be a routine agreement expiry, historical precedents of China purposefully rescinding these contracts beg the question of whether there is more to the story. In 2010, pandas sent to the U.S. were returned to China after then-President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader living in exile. In 2013, during a period of strained relations between China and Malaysia, China withheld the delivery of newly leased pandas in response to the disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines flight. These incidents underscore pandas’ historic entanglements in complex diplomatic webs. Given the current strained relations between the U.S. and China, nullifying the contract with the National Zoo carries a punitive undertone. It may be a reflection of a litany of complex geopolitical standoffs, such as sanctions imposed by the U.S. government on prominent Chinese citizens and officials and restrictions on imports of Chinese semiconductors. Ultimately, this game of panda tug-of-war seems to be a manifestation of the boiling pettiness between two preeminent global superpowers.


The use of pandas to promote a positive image abroad and establish trusting bonds with other nations is clearly a means for China’s exertion of diplomatic soft power. More important, however, is the fact that pandas become valuable to foreign economies. Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo even said the following about the arrival of pandas in Belgium in 2014: “For our economy, commerce, our scientific and cultural ties, this is truly a major event.” The value of the pandas allows China to treat them as insurance policies, which enables the achievement of specific foreign policy and trade objectives.

A Scarce Resource

The economics of panda-centered tourism is an interesting intersection of scarcity, diplomacy, and global demand. China holds a global quasi-monopoly over the panda, being the sole country with ownership of these iconic creatures. Zoos incur significant financial burdens to care for pandas, with some even going into debt to support the animals. Nevertheless, pandas are widely acknowledged for their economic contributions as popular zoo attractions. Because pandas are one of the rarest animals on the planet, they are subject to the economic dilemma of limited supply in the face of countries’ growing demand for having them in zoos.

Panda Profitability

The giant panda is not only a symbol of conservation but also a massive attraction in zoos, driving colossal demand in merchandising sales and visitor numbers. Loans of pandas generate substantial revenue — almost $2 billion — by boosting business around panda reserves in the respective country. During the loan process, the rarity of pandas in foreign lands draws the attention of numerous visitors (both local and international), leading to a substantial surge in zoo-goers to panda conservation centers. A prominent example of this phenomenon took place prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, when China loaned a pair of giant pandas, Yongyong and Yingxin, for a three-month tour in the United States. This strategic move proved very profitable, with American zoos raking in tens of millions of dollars in ticket sales within a mere three months.

Envoys of Exchange

China’s unique position as the world’s panda monopolist has allowed it to integrate pandas into today’s trade deals. The country uses panda diplomacy to ensure and obtain relevant resources or energy to promote development. For instance, China initiated a panda loan deal to the Edinburgh Zoo while negotiating contracts worth £2.6 billion for the supply of petrochemical and renewable energy technology with Scotland. Additionally, the arrival of pandas in Canada and France both coincided with contracts to supply China with uranium oxide. Thus, the giant panda is an acting diplomatic tool for maintaining mutual economic partnerships abroad. Gradually, panda gifting has become a capitalist lease model, grounded in the mutual expectation that the recipient country provides China with something valuable in return. It becomes increasingly clear that the panda has transcended its role as a mere symbol of diplomacy and conservation, evolving into a living conduit for trade agreements and maybe even paving the way for a new approach for countries to shape global collaborations.

A Question of Morality

It is worth noting that a multitude of ethical concerns plague the practice of panda diplomacy. While pandas serve as useful economic assets, there should be considerable worry about the gradual commercialization of these cuddly animals. Pandas are widely exposed to the public and have become a commodity for humans to enjoy. Ultimately, this discussion is about monetizing an animal for power, which reduces these creatures to mere political pawns and undermines their intrinsic ecological value. 

The controversy surrounding a case of potential mistreatment of LeLe, a panda at the Memphis Zoo who unfortunately passed away just weeks before his expected return to China, further highlights the associated risks of panda diplomacy. Animal welfare concerns over panda captivity have surfaced over the years, particularly regarding the conditions in which pandas live and the stress of international travel. These issues have sparked debates within the global community, with animal rights activists and conservationists expressing apprehension about the well-being of pandas in foreign zoos. The ethical dimensions of panda diplomacy remain a topic of contention, straddling the line between conservation and commercialization. The broader externalities of this practice, including environmental impacts, add another layer to the ongoing debates. In the long run, to what extent can we allow animals to be put at risk for human benefit?

While the removal of giant pandas from the list of endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature is a testament to the success of panda conservation efforts, it has also led to an increasing presence of panda diplomacy. As China appears to gradually pull back its pandas from Western zoos amid rising diplomatic tensions, the intricate connection between global affairs and this beloved species seems unlikely to slacken anytime soon.

Beyond the Bears

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, which took place this past November 2023 in San Francisco, has strengthened the diplomatic relationship between China and the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced China’s intention to send more pandas to the U.S., declaring them “envoys of friendship between the Chinese and American peoples.” This development comes on the heels of President Xi and President Biden’s in-person encounter during the summit. As the National Zoo’s giant pandas recently departed, the renewal of the panda contract aligns with the discussion of reducing tensions and addressing issues such as counternarcotics, high-level military communications, and the expansion of people-to-people exchanges. Whether or not this new shipment of pandas signifies a lasting positive turn in China-U.S. relations remains to be seen, but what is certain is that these panda envoys will continue to be entwined with the ever-shifting currents of international relations.

Take-Home Points

  • China has a tradition of gifting pandas to symbolize diplomatic goodwill. However, the practice has developed into leasing pandas through million-dollar contracts with zoos.
  • Historical events suggest pandas are also tools in China’s geopolitical strategy, reflecting tensions between global superpowers.
  • Pandas serve as economic assets. Because they bring value to foreign economies, China uses them as insurance to secure trade deals.
  • The commercialization of pandas raises ethical concerns, with mistreatment cases and debates over the line between conservation and exploitation.

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