The era of failed panda diplomacy is over. Now all we’re left with are lousy Confucius Institutes

One of the pandas in question

Tian Tian and her partner, Yang Guang are catching a flight home to China, according to Edinburgh Zoo. 

It’s the end of an era – the panda diplomacy era – as the couple’s ‘residency’ in the Scottish capital came to an end on Thursday. They were initially given a home in Scotland as part of a deal in 2011 with China, but next week, on an undisclosed day and time (due, apparently, to unspecified safety concerns), Tian Tian and Yang Guang will go home to Ya’an in Sichuan province where they will have to quarantine for a month at the China Giant Panda Conservation and Research Centre. Reassuringly, the China Wildlife Conservation Association said that the country was now “well-prepared to welcome them back”. 

Soft power, which panda diplomacy is a part of, is what happens if you believe “the best propaganda is not propaganda. The phrase refers to the use of underhand initiatives to spread influence and prestige over other forms of exerting power – like force for example. War is no longer a la mode (for most countries). 

Nye was referring to US outputs like Levi’s jeans and McDonalds, pushed in the Cold War as a pro-Western initiative. Nowadays soft power is less fashion and more culture, restaurant and film. Even sacred domains like yoga have been used as a soft power shtick – Narendra Modi lobbied the UN to establish an “International Yoga Day” and uses the 21 June to position himself performing the peace-promoting practice in front of a sea of soldiers. This helps him cosplay as a peaceful leader – despite presiding over the largest army in the world. 

Gastrodiplomacy is another. Thai government scrubbed up their woks and turbocharged a massive movement of Thai restaurants opening up globally – from 5,000 in 2002 to 15,000 in 2019. Accordingly Thailand’s tourism numbers shot up from 11m to 39m annual visitors in around the same time frame. South Korea’s kimchi diplomacy programme aims to promote its cuisine as distinct to China’s through its 2010-established World Institute of Kimchi.

The perils of panda diplomacy 

In the good old days China gifted pandas for free with no strings attached. Early giftees in the 1940s and 59s included the Soviet Union, the DPRK and the US. In 1974 prime minister Edward Heath specifically requested pandas during a visit to China; Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching pitched up at the London Zoo a mere few weeks later. 

Now the Chinese rent-a-panda scheme means country’s pay a $1m a year rental fee for the black-and-white bears – or $500,000 each

But following this golden age of panda diplomacy, then-Chinese chairman Deng Xiaoping started a new system: instead of gifting pandas, they were leased. In 1984, Los Angeles pay $100,000 a month for two pandas during the Olympics. In 1991, these leases were extended to 10 year agreements. 

Now the Chinese rent-a-panda scheme means country’s pay a $1m a year rental fee for the black-and-white bears – or $500,000 each. When a country has paid their panda rent, they need to source 40kg of fresh bamboo each per day, as well as create new enclosures. Think of it like ground rents after you’ve managed to buy a house. These costs add up to over £420,000 each year for basic care, and even more for enclosures – Copenhagen’s cost $24m.

Unsurprisingly countries have begun rejecting their pandas. In 2020, Calgary Zoo was forced to return two pandas after failing to source enough bamboo. “Sad that it’s apparently easier to transport giant live pandas than it is bamboo,” wrote a dismayed user on The Calgary Zoo’s Facebook post in which it explained the zoo’s decision to return the pandas back home “where bamboo is abundant and local”. The US will lose its last pandas next year, and others, like Chuang Chuang in Thailand, struggled with obesity, before dying of heart failure in 2019. 

This is all before considering how the beasts are deviations from Darwinism. Their insanely bulky nutrient-sparse diet means they can’t hibernate like most bears, and they can hardly breed. They only still exist due to intensive and expensive (as mentioned) human intervention. Humans have also undoubtedly contributed to the erosion of their natural habitats, but it’s hard to imagine a less efficient living organism.

Turns out leasing an oversized black and white mammal with a weirdly demanding dietary requirement, and slapping on an annual rental fee of $500,000, doesn’t necessarily curry favour with the recipient

China has focused on other, arguably more effective, weapons in its arsenal of soft power tools. In total the state spends $10bn a year on “spreading influence”. By contrast the US spends less than $607m.

Culture is still a major stream for soft power, with things like Confucius Institutes popping up as part of its ‘brand’. These outposts teach kids Mandarin – innocently enough. But they have also been criticised for their pro-China agenda and limits on the scope of Sino-critical discussions. Some see them more akin to CCP propaganda machines and China has built 500 in the last 15 years. The UK has the highest number of any Confucius Institutes, 30, largely university based and closely tied to China’s education ministry. Hundreds of global Confucius Institutes have refused to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Liu Yunshan, who runs the CCP’s propaganda wing said Confucius Institutes were “spiritual high-speed rail”.

So China’s experiment in sending oversized yet fussy fluffy animals as a form of influence appears to have failed. The foreign outposts country Tian Tian and Yang Guang will leave behind is more China-critical than ever. ‘Unfavourable’ views of China clearly exceed ‘favourable’ views in the UK, according to recent polling. Media coverage skews negative. Politicians are increasingly sceptical. 

Turns out leasing an oversized black and white mammal with a weirdly demanding dietary requirement, and slapping on an annual rental fee of $500,000, doesn’t necessarily curry favour with the recipient.


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