By Vivian Coyne
If you were asked to determine the quality of the Sino-Canadian relationship, it might be difficult to sum it up in a brief phrase or symbol. That will cease to be an issue later this year, when Canada receives two giant pandas from China on a ten year loan. China has employed “panda diplomacy” over the past few decades (and centuries), a tactic calculated to deepen relationships it considers strategically important, especially in terms of trade.
Canada is neither the first country nor will it be the last to receive such a gift. After returning to the United States in 1972, back from his historic visit to the People’s Republic of China, President Richard Nixon welcomed Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, two giant pandas, to Washington, DC. President Nixon donated the bears to the National Zoo, where they would attract thousands of visitors on their first day alone. Relations between China and the United States strengthened in the years that followed, with the U.S. switching recognition of China’s capital from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Today, in a world where China is the United States’ biggest trading partner, the Memphis, San Diego, Atlanta and National Zoos all have pandas of their own.
Pandas have even been used to address the situation in Taiwan. In 2005, a member of Taiwan’s Kuomintang party received an offer of a two-panda loan, but the ruling Democratic Progressive Party turned it down. In 2008, following an election and a transfer of power to the Kuomintang, the offer was accepted. Chinese citizens voted on the names of the pandas to be sent to Taiwan, and selected Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (团圆(tuányuán) means ‘reunite’ in Chinese). Though those two pandas finally wound up in the Taipei Zoo, the Democratic Progressive Party still distrusts the symbolism of the gift and discourages party members from visiting them.
China’s pandas have come to serve as symbols of interest and priority, and have put a kinder, fuzzier face on the sometimes menacing dragon imagery that often surrounds China. The future of bilateral relations between China and panda-hosting countries remains unclear, but these quiet animals will certainly continue to draw thousands of visitors to the various zoos they are housed in for years to come.
Vivian Coyne is an intern for the EastWest Institute’s New York Center.