China’s softest power: Pandas.
Let me introduce you to China’s softest form of political power: their pandas. Recently, the fact that China is targeting Uighurs has been all over the news. With the fact that China has been forcing one million Uighurs and other minorities into camps, they have not made themselves popular.
Supporting Chinese politics and practicing diplomacy, while China forces minorities into camp seems like a bizarre thing. But what if I tell you that quite some European countries still support these actions (including the Netherlands) and even more bizarre, they do it by taking care of pandas. Nowadays, China’s biggest trade partners get the most pandas.
With the pandas, China also does themselves a favour. While they own around 75% of all the smartphone productions, they own 100% of the pandas. Meaning that whenever a Zoo or a country wants a panda, they get them from China. These pandas are used for trade contracts at every possible opportunity. France got its pandas after an important deal regarding Uranium, an element which will be scarce in China in a few years. Another example is Denmark, which gained a pair of pandas after signing a tradedeal about resources in Greenland. For the Netherlands, the panda loan was completing an important deal about supplying advanced healthcare services.
It is not as simple as it might seem to get a panda. It requires the following actions:
For a panda loan to be signed off, the foreign head of state needs to ask for the pandas in person.
One should also build special enclosures with facilities and pay for Chinese experts to take care of the pandas (this can include special pandacuzzi’s).
A loan of a million dollar should be paid yearly to the Chinese, to ensure that pandas won’t become extinct.
Most importantly, you should make a deal with China which should involve something positive for them (think of energy, resources, etc.)
But there are consequences for those who are practicing politics not in favour of China. For example in the US, just after a new panda was born in Zoo Atlanta, the cub was repatriated. Just because China warned Obama not to go meet the Dalai Lama, which he did regardless. The panda loans to France were also delayed until the G20 summit would resolve the financial crisis in Europe. Paul Jepson even named it ‘the panda seal of approval’ - a gesture that says, we will have a long-term relationship with China in which both parties trust each other.
The problem also has an ecological side, as people are protecting the pandas not just for scientific or ecological reasons, but also because they are politically important.
And this is where the 1 million dollar go. Once the money is transferred, it is unclear where it went or how it was spent and gets, unsurprisingly, labelled as a ‘State Secret’. Meanwhile, panda conservations are looking poorly and with hardly any rangers to take care of them.
In conclusion, it is more than just a cute animal, it is a way of distraction. In China the pandas are used as a form of soft power, to portray themselves compassionately. The country uses them to demonstrate that everything is going well, in every area. The pandas are the national symbol of China and they are generally considered cute. The panda’s are a political promotion device which the receiver pays for. If you genuinely do not wish to support China, do not go and see the pandas.