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Pandas, the soft power of China’s diplomacy

Posted July. 08, 2014 06:29,   


Giant pandas are from the Sichuan Province, China. Though weighing more than 100 kilograms, they make people have a crush on them at first sight. Behavioral psychologists say that they stir up the protective instinct with their cute look and naive behaviors. The number of pandas in the wild is estimated at just around 1,600 to 3,000. They are endangered species alerting people to the destruction of the nature and the spearhead of Chinese diplomacy at the same time.

Former U.S. President Richard Nixon received a pair of pandas during his historical visit to China in 1972. It was the start of the so-called “panda diplomacy.” Since then, the panda diplomacy has evolved. In the first stage, China used pandas to have a friendly relationship with western countries between 1972 and 1984. A “gift” changed to “lending” from 1984 to 1998. The change was the result of China’s learning of a capitalist model in line with the communist party’s open policy. The lending standards changed from diplomacy to countries that offer natural resource that China needs, such as uranium or new technologies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping who recently visited Korea gave pandas to Korea as a “gift.” Koreans could see real pandas next year at the earliest. It is the second time for pandas to visit Korea following 1994. Back then, a pair of pandas came to Korea to celebrate the diplomatic ties between Korea and China, but returned home four years later in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Of course, it was and is not for free. It costs one million dollars per year for renting, tremendous costs of feeds including 40 kilograms of bamboo trees per day, and labor costs for keepers from China. Still, many countries desperately want pandas. Edinburgh Zoo in the U.K., which borrowed a pair of pandas in 2011, set a profit of 1.5 million pounds in 2012.

Pandas are symbols representing China’s soft power just like Disney in the U.S. and the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia. China succeeds in killing two birds with one stone as it makes money from the ownership while building a friendly relationship with countries. Hopefully, Korea could develop an icon that can rival pandas, the superstars on the global stage.

Editorial Writer Koh Mi-seok (mskoh119@donga.com)