The international conservation organization World Wide Fund for Nature features a panda on its logo. The panda is one of the most well-known endangered species and widely loved animals. The giant panda, which originates from Sichuan Province, has long been used for promoting China’s foreign relations. In 685, the panda diplomacy first appeared as Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor.
Panda diplomacy resurfaced in 1941. To express gratitude for help during the Sino-Japanese War, the Kuomintang presented pandas to the United States. As the Cold War escalated, the Chinese Communist Party also used pandas as diplomatic gestures. From 1957 to 1982, 24 pandas were doled out to nine countries, and North Korea got the most with five. So when China promised a gift of pandas to South Korea two years ago, North Korea responded hysterically. North Korean soldiers supposedly shot at paintings of pandas as targets at the shooting range.
At any rate, the most famous panda couple is Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the gifts to the United States in 1972 after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. On their first day at the National Zoo in Washington, 20,000 visitors came to see them, and every year over 1.1 million people visited the famous pandas. They were considered the highlights of the improved U.S.-China relations. Encouraged by the success, British Prime Minister Edward Heath requested pandas during his 1974 visit and received a pair for the London Zoo.
In May 2014, a pair of pandas were also presented to Malaysia to celebrate the 40th anniversary of two countries’ ties. The awkward mood in the aftermath of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 was relieved thanks to the gift.
However, panda diplomacy wasn’t always successful. When a baby panda born in Japan in 2012 died six days after birth, China was displeased. The tension between China and Japan was elevated over the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute, and Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara made Chinese people upset by proposing the baby panda be named Sen-sen or Kaku-kaku after Senkaku Islands.
Many of the leaders who brought pandas from China fell from power, and BBC calls it “the curse of the pandas.” Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, and British Prime Minister Heath lost in the following election. Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Dutch Prince Bernhard, husband of Queen Juliana, had to step down from public positions for involvement in the Lockheed bribery scandal.
While dark clouds hover over Seoul-Beijing relations, a pair of pandas will arrive next month, the first since 1998. While the purpose of panda diplomacy is friendship, it could also ruin bilateral relations. We should offer extra care for the adorable animals when they come.
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 22, Page 31
by NAM JEONG-HO