Soft, fluffy, cuddly, cute, rare and bear-like. When people think of giant pandas from China, these are often the adjectives that come to mind. As symbols of friendship and peace, the lovable pandas are ambassadors that connect China with people around the world. However, the sudden death of a 25-year-old panda at the Memphis Zoo last month creates wider implications for China’s so-called “Panda Diplomacy.”
On February 3, officials at Memphis Zoo in Tennessee announced the unexpected death of one of their giant pandas, Le Le (which means ‘happiness’ in Chinese). An autopsy revealed that Le Le died of heart disease.
Le Le and his partner Ya Ya came to the United States in 2003 as part of a joint research program between the Memphis Zoo and the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens – an initiative focused on panda protection and conservation.
Le Le was initially expected to be returned to China with his partner Ya Ya (‘cute girl’) in April of this year. Due to their scarcity, pandas are usually offered on loan by China, with the expectation of return at the end of the term. Le Le’s death brought grief and sorrow to the global community but also sparked fury among animal rights and panda lovers, who believe that Le Le and Ya Ya were suffering from mistreatment in the zoo, a factor which they allege caused Le Le’s passing.
Over the last two years, U.S. animal rights organizations such as In Defense of Animals (IDA) and Panda Voices have repeatedly requested that the Memphis Zoo send their pandas back to a sanctuary in China. The reason for this request stems from their claims of malnourishment, skin disease and excessive caging of the pandas. Disheartening images of Le Le and Ya Ya have circulated, showing both pandas as grubby, distressed and malnourished. This specific image of Ya Ya was tweeted by IDA in late November of 2021. In early 2022, panda activists in both the United States and China expressed similar concerns about Le Le’s and Ya Ya’s health conditions, especially when comparing them to pandas within similar age ranges living in other zoos around the world.
The Memphis Zoo responded to the criticisms and defended itself in a statement after Le Le’s death, calling out misinformation. They explained that they truly cared for Le Le and Ya Ya and had been looking after them and closely monitoring their health conditions. This did not assuage public concerns. Le Le’s death trended on Chinese social media, with Chinese panda lovers calling for the early return of Ya Ya. Some panda lovers residing in the United States have donated money for better food and treatment of Ya Ya and even flew to Memphis to ensure her safety. Meanwhile, others streamed videos about Le Le and Ya Ya’s experience on the digital screens at Times Square in New York City, hoping to bring more public attention to the issue.
Pandas have been considered an important part of U.S.-China relations from the very start. In 1972, President Nixon’s visit to China paved the way for the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. As a gesture of friendship, China gifted two giant pandas to the United States. Since then, more and more pandas have traveled to different countries around the world to promote cross-cultural communication and collaboration, as well as propel research on animal preservation. Currently, around 20 countries in the world have pandas; three U.S. zoos have currently loaned pandas from China. This long-term initiative by China has had dual benefits: not only are people interested in learning about China as a result of pandas, but the joint efforts also contributed to the removal of pandas from China’s endangered species list in 2021.
Chinese people also refer to giant pandas as Guobao (‘national treasure’), a strong indicator that they take pride in pandas and see them as a representation of their country. According to People’s Daily, four characteristics are essential for an animal to attain status as a so-called national treasure: the animal is unique or mostly owned by a specific country; it reflects the country’s cultural characteristics; it represents the country’s image; and it is closely related to the country’s development. Pandas’ black-and-white appearance echoes China’s philosophical concept of Yin and Yang, and the species is well-built and signals humbleness, peace and harmony. These concepts constitute the national image that China wants to show the world. In fact, one of the mascots during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics was a panda; The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics also had the panda as the only mascot.
Scholars consider pandas to be China’s soft power, which refers to a country’s values and culture that foreigners find attractive. Sharing these values and cultural aspects with international audiences will pique their curiosity and increase their favorable perception towards this specific country. This will eventually help improve bilateral relations, encourage commerce, communication and other types of exchanges between the domestic and foreign public. In a New York Times article, political science professor Andrew J. Nathan from Columbia University said that pandas constitute an image of friendship diplomacy. Even with tensions rising between the United States and China over the past decade and the American public holding a generally negative view of China, pandas remain an aspect of China that they find positive. The Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda habitat continues to be the destination spot for tourists; when a panda cub was born at the National Zoo in 2020, over 4.2 million users watched the live stream.
Politicians often see panda diplomacy as one-way diplomacy, or China’s political tool to influence the foreign public. However, they fail to understand that panda diplomacy works both ways and carries a reverse effect, as the meanings that pandas embody also make them important to Chinese people. Le Le’s death is unlikely to create further damage to inter-governmental U.S.-China relations overall, as neither the Chinese nor the U.S. government officials have commented on this. The incident also does not carry any direct political implications. Yet it will, to some extent, affect how the Chinese public views the United States, making them believe the country is disrespectful of its relations with China. This in turn may potentially discourage cross-cultural communication and exchanges between the two countries, making them less likely to cooperate in international affairs.
For the Chinese public, giving out their ‘national treasure’ to a foreign country is a gesture of goodwill. However, the death of Le Le and the controversies surrounding panda mistreatment at Memphis Zoo has only made Chinese panda lovers question the sincerity of the United States. Chinese news media commented in an editorial: “The current look of Ya Ya not only breaks the hearts of the Chinese people. We hope that its health condition can improve after returning to China. When even giant pandas are affected and implicated, it indicates the China-US relations are already quite bad. This is a strong warning signal. It shows that the hostile posture of some Washington elites toward China has already affected the normal and friendly interactions between the two peoples.”
The dispute over panda mistreatment in the United States might have also unexpectedly changed and furthered relations between the Chinese public and other countries. The death of Le Le panda lovers examine how pandas are being treated in other countries. Chinese media as well as content creators compared and contrast how pandas are being treated in different countries. The zoo in South Korea received praise for their care of three pandas. The caretaker Kang Cherwon, who Chinese panda lovers affectionately called “Grandpa Kang,” decided to learn Chinese and teach Chinese to the South Korean-born panda cub Fu Bao, in hopes of reducing language barriers for the cub after she returns to China. In an interview with Chinese media this March, Cherwon introduced the pandas’ conditions in Chinese. Panda treatment in Russia, Qatar and Japan has also been reported more favorably.
China’s panda diplomacy, as a part of public diplomacy, can be considered successful as it promotes positive engagement between China and the foreign public. In essence, China’s panda diplomacy continues to establish cultural ties between China and other countries. Panda lovers across the world are now waiting to see if Ya Ya will recover after she returns to China this April. Her condition and behavior at home will soon provide a concrete answer to what her real experience at the Memphis Zoo was like. What follows might once again cause further reverse effects between the U.S. and Chinese public, hindering cross-cultural interactions and understanding.