China’s secret soft-power weapon amid growing tensions with the West

A French zoo will say goodbye to its star attraction, a 5-year-old giant panda, on Tuesday as the bear joins a breeding program in China’s Sichuan province. Although Yuan Meng was born in France, it is Chinese property leased to the zoo as part of China’s international “panda diplomacy” program.

Yuan Meng’s parents, Yuan Zi and Huanhuan, arrived in France from China in 2012 and lent them to Zoo Beauval under China’s conservation program aimed at breeding giant pandas around the world.

The French team has achieved success: On August 4, 2017, “Yuan Meng” became the first giant panda born in France, and twin siblings “Yuan Dudu” and “Huan Lili” were also born in 2021.

and increase the number of “Vulnerable” species, the giant panda has aroused interest in the Beauval zoo in central France.The year Yuanzi and Huanhuan came, the number of tourists doubled more than 1 million. In 2022, they reached 2 million.

“Pandas gave us an identity. Today, we are a zoo where you can see pandas,” says Samuel Leroux, Operations Manager at Beauval, tell broadcast network French blue.

On September 30, 2021, French and Chinese breeders raised two twin giant panda cubs “Yuan Dudu” and “Huan Lili” at the Beauval Zoo in Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in central France. © Guillaume Sauvent, AFP

Similar stories also happened in 22 zoos Europe, North America and Asia where the Chinese giant panda is currently inhabited. Many have used the popular panda to host lavish welcomes, birthday celebrations and 24-hour “panda cams” for fans.

But the bears are not only popular with the public. “Acquiring a panda is often considered a great diplomatic coup,” said Kerry Brown, director and professor of the Liu China Institute at King’s College London.

“furry and friendly”

Professor Astrid Nordin, also from the Liu Hua Institute, said rejecting a panda offer could also be difficult and could “diplomatically damage”.

Earlier this year, a zoo in Finland considered the idea returns its pandas to China, but have since decided to keep them.

The problem is the cost of caring for the bears: host countries usually pay annually $ 1,000,000 Proceeds from each panda pair will be reinvested in conservation efforts in China. The loan period is up to 15 years, after which the pandas must return to China.

If the panda dies during the loan period, there is a fine to be paid. In 2023, 21-year-old Lin Hui died of multiple organ failure at the Chiang Mai Zoo, and Thai authorities said they responded 15 million baht (US$435,000) insurance payout to China.

Nordin said the loan model was a “smart way” of asking the host country to bear most of the costs of maintaining and promoting a much-loved Chinese cultural symbol. A similar model has been adopted by Confucius Institutes, such as that hosted by Paris-Cité University, which runs prestigious Chinese educational and cultural programs.

If the philosopher Confucius embodies the idea of ​​Chinese wisdom, the panda promotes a more playful image.They are not only tall and strong, but also happy, cute and verythreaten.

Their good reputation makes them popular companions in trade deals – French giant pandas arrived in France in 2012 reached an agreement Supplying uranium to China for nuclear power.

“Part of the message on the Chinese side about the trade deal is that there is no reason to be afraid of Chinese investment,” Nordin said. “The panda complements this nicely, as it symbolizes kindness and tenderness.”

partner, competitor, rival

When China first pursued a panda foreign policy more than 50 years ago, it played a very different role on the world stage. At the time, pandas were gifted rather than borrowed, resulting in a dwindling number of pandas that no longer belong to China but still live there. zoos in mexico and Taiwan.

Today, as an economic superpower, “China can win the admiration and respect of other countries – something it couldn’t do when it started ‘panda diplomacy’ in the 1970s,” said Professor Ruisheng Zeng, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.

As its power and influence have grown, China’s international relations, especially with the West, have become more complicated.

“The rhetoric in many of the countries hosting pandas and Confucius Institutes has shifted to be much less friendly towards China and no longer encourage engagement,” Nordin said.

The United States defines China as “themajor trading partners” and the source of “economic and defense concerns.” Tensions have peaked over the past 12 months with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan and the U.S. government accusing China of launching aerial spyware into U.S. airspace.

read moreBeijing threatens ‘response’ after US shoots down Chinese spy balloon

The EU officially sees China as a “partner, competitor and systemic adversary”. In 2022, the relationship with China has “deteriorated” Due to differing positions on human rights, trade with Europe, economic coercion and the war in Ukraine.

“It’s really tough for China and the West arrive Have healthy conversations now. There are very few areas where conversations don’t go wrong,” Brown said. “Everything is arguing.The issue is [China and the West] They are also deeply entangled with each other. This is not a cold war; it is a cold war. This is more complicated matter. ”

Panda’s gift seemed increasingly feeble compared to the scale of the feud, he said: “It’s like a warring couple where one decides to calm the other down by buying the other a pathetic box of chocolates.”

At the same time, Pandas remains an isolated — if tiny — field of direct consensus. Beijing loves to borrow them. Zoos all over the world love to host them. The public was delighted to see them as good luck messages were left for France’s first baby panda during a show at the Beauval Zoo.

first reading: “I watched you turn into black and white, grow up, make us happy, and then leave soon. Good luck, Yuan Meng. ”

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