China, Malaysia and the weird world of panda diplomacy


Feng Yi, one of two giant pandas from China, sits in a cage on its arrival at cargo terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia, Wednesday, May 21, 2014.  (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Early on Wednesday morning, Malaysian officials were on hand to welcome two important new arrivals to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The pair, Ms. Feng Yi and Mr. Fu Wa, are on a diplomatic mission from China, hoping to cement the relationship between the two states and help them get past the considerable trauma caused to that relationship by the missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

It's a lot to expect from two black-and-white, bamboo-chewing bears, both members of a species noted for lethargy and a legendary unwillingness to mate.

But these are the hopes being pinned to Feng and Fu, two giant pandas on loan to Zoo Negara for the next 10 years. And in the weird world of "panda diplomacy," it's become expected that bears in zoos can do a lot.

Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling play in the Zoo grounds in 1983 (Jesse Cohen National Zoological Park. )
Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling play in the National Zoo grounds in 1983 (Jesse Cohen National Zoological Park. )

China's practice of "panda diplomacy" goes back decades, if not centuries: Some date it back to the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, when a Chinese empress gave a gift of bears, perhaps pandas, to a Japanese emperor. The tradition was revived in the modern era in 1941, when Beijing gave the Bronx Zoo a bear as a thank you for American help during World War II. In the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong had made the practice commonplace, with bears given as gifts to Communist allies like North Korea and the Soviet Union. The pandas often came at historically important moments: In 1972,  President Richard Nixon made a landmark trip to China; two months later his wife Pat Nixon was on hand when the U.S.received the gift of two pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. In 1999, as Beijing prepared for the handover of Hong Kong from the British, panda bears were sent over to the city state as a gesture of good will.

Some nations have been skeptical at Beijing's use of pandas as soft, furry power. Taiwan turned down Beijing's proposed panda loan for years due to a strong suspicions that the bears would act as propaganda for the mainland. It was only after a change of government in 2008 that Taipei finally accepted Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan. The bears predictably became instant celebrities, prompting reports of "pandamania" in the press.

But generally it's seen as a success, and few people raise eyebrows about it any more. China is quite open in its intentions with the bears: As Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai explained in an op-ed for The Post late last year, "there are actually two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: me and the panda cub at the National Zoo. "


An airport worker lifts a cage housing one of China's two pandas, eight-year-old Fu Wa (male) into a vehicle to be transported to the National Zoo upon their arrival at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur, 21 May 2014. EPA/SHAMSHAHRIN SHAMSUDIN

China had agreed to the loan of Feng and Fu back in 2012, in a bid to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between China and Malaysia and cement the two country's burgeoning economic relationship. But after flight 370 disappeared, that relationship suddenly looked fraught. Some 30,000 Chinese tourists cancelled vacation plans to Malaysia after the incident, and Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang publicly rebuked Malaysian authorities for being too “inexperienced and lacking the capacity” to carry out the investigation properly.

Flight 370 remains missing, but China has recently dialed back its criticism of Malaysia, perhaps realizing it overstepped a boundary. And while the arrival of the pandas was delayed for a month out of respect to those missing and their families, the final handover does appear to have been a success so far. Whether the pandas can help to smooth things over further only remains to be seen.

But what's so great about pandas anyway? The animals are also notoriously expensive to keep and breed, with Malaysia having reportedly allocated 60 million ringgit ($18.6 million) for Feng and Fu. As my colleague Ishaan Tharoor once wrote, the animals' cute reputation isn't always reflected in reality. "Mean-spirited, mate-abusing, progeny-mauling, deviant monsters," is the way he described them. There's also the far murkier issue of the so-called "panda curse." A 1973 BBC documentary once pointed out that a number of world leaders who received pandas were soon forced out of office, with Nixon, Britain's Edward Heath, and Japan's Kakuei Tanaka among them. Consider these points together and the bears don't sound like much of a prize.


This picture taken on May 13, 2014 shows a giant panda sleeping in its enclosure in Hangzhou zoo in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province AFP PHOTOSTR/AFP/Getty Images

Some have suggested that China's panda diplomacy may be less about pandas, and more about building economic relationships. "Panda loans are associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology and symbolize China's willingness to build guanxi,” a group of Oxford academics wrote in one recent paper. “Namely, deep trade relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, loyalty and longevity.”

However, as Henry Nicholls wrote in his book "The Way of the Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal," the symbolic importance of the panda may be even more vivid. "As this black-and-white bear emerged from the obscurity of its bamboo hideaway, forging a new identity and coming to dominate the zoological world," Nicholls explains, "so we have witnessed China wrestling free from colonial oppression, reconfiguring itself as the People's Republic, and rising to become the formidable power it is today."

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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