This is the first recorded use of the iconic Chinese mammals as diplomatic tools by the Chinese government. The practice was revived under Mao, most notable when the US was given a gift to cement the Chinese opening to the west after President Nixon visited China.
Now it has been announced that Edinburgh Zoo has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government about bringing pandas to Scotland.
The move is of huge economic significance for the zoo, as there are only eight pandas in western zoos currently, and four of those are in the US. If it was one of the few places in the west you can see a real live panda the zoo estimates it could bring in well over a million visitors a year.
China claims that it no longer practices panda diplomacy, and only lends out pandas to take part in scientific and captive breeding programmes.
However, Chinese President Hu Jintao on a recent visit to Japan offered two pandas to replace Ling Ling, Tokyo zoo’s panda who had died just before the visit. The move was widely interpreted as having more to do with Sino-Japanese relations on a host of important issues such as North Korea and disputed rights to underwater gas reserves.
The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible to get a panda from China without very high level involvement by the Chinese government, and their use is fraught with symbolism and meaning. In 2006 when a US trade commissioner visited China and was pictured on TV cuddling a panda many Chinese commentators claimed it meant he favoured closer US-China ties.
The typical deal that China offers foreign zoos to get hold of pandas underscores their importance-they are rented out on 10 year leases, at a typical cost of $1 million a year. Any cubs born while abroad are automatically the property of the People’s Republic.
Pandas are icons of the global wildlife movement, most obviously as the logo of the WWF. But unfortunately their habitat is still incredibly threatened, and with it their ability to survive in the wild. The Chinese know how important it is to preserve the beautiful animals, but this often conflicts with the massive industrialisation process taking place in China.
The situation has been compounded by the recent earthquake in Sichuan province earthquake. Sichuan is the home of much of the remaining panda habitat, as well as the leading panda captive breeding installation at Wolong. Five members of staff were killed in the earthquake.
The Chinese government has had more pandas to offer in recent years because of the increasing success of its captive breeding programme. Although personally I think that captive bred animals may be able to play some part in the rebuilding of ecosystems and the survival of endangered species, the details of panda breeding are a little troubling.
For years it was notoriously difficult to get pandas to breed in captivity. They are a species that just doesn’t adapt well to life outside of their natural conditions, and find it incredibly hard to produce offspring.
That’s changed now because Chinese scientists have begun to perfect artificial insemination techniques for pandas. These basically consist of anaesthetising the male so that he can be given electric shocks in the rectum to induce erection and ejaculation.
Then the female is anaesthetised so that the semen can be injected into her uterus. However, there are still many problems, a major one being that pandas born in captivity have an incredibly high rate of infant mortality.
Although an abstract level the more pandas there are the better, there’s obviously no future for the species on this basis, and they’re only hope lies with attempts to preserve and extend their natural habitat.
But, despite their protestations to the contrary, the artificial production of pandas provides the Chinese government with a very politically important and lucrative commodity.
The moves to bring pandas to Edinburgh has led to protests from animal groups, who argue that it is in fact a cynical move to bring more tourists to Edinburgh, and has little to do with conservation. They argue that the zoo should instead spend money on supporting pandas in the wild in China.
The moves were backed up by a motion in the Scottish Parliament by Green MSP Robin Harper.
But the Royal Zoological Society for Scotland, which runs Edinburgh zoo and has been negotiating to bring the pandas to Scotland, has been clear that both the Scottish and UK governments have been centrally involved in the deal with the Chinese government.
When I was trying to find out a bit more about this, and what the political significance of China allowing a panda to come to Edinburgh might be, I found that the SNP government recently published a major strategy document about its relations with China, aiming to find opportunities for Scottish capitalism in China.
I wonder whether we should see the gift of pandas in a political context. The Chinese take pandas as a business very seriously, and could it be that they are assessing the possibility of a Scottish state in the near future? Could the panda gift be part of cementing future relations?