A French zoo will say goodbye to one of its star attractions – a 5-year-old giant panda – on Tuesday, with the bear set to join a breeding program in China’s Sichuan province. Although Yuan Meng was born in France, he is Chinese property on loan to the zoo as part of China’s international “panda diplomacy” program.
Yuan Meng’s parents, Yuan Zi and Huan Huan, arrived in France from China in 2012, on loan to Beauval Zoo under a Chinese conservation scheme aimed at breeding pandas around the world.
The French team succeeded: Yuan Meng became the first panda born on French soil on August 4, 2017, and the twins Yuandudu and Huanlili followed in 2021.
As well as increasing the number of “vulnerable” species, the pandas have added to the interest of the Beauval Zoo in central France. The year Yuan Zi and Huan Huan arrived, the number of visitors doubled more than 1 million. In 2022, they arrived 2 million.
“The pandas gave us an identity. Today, we are the zoo where you can see pandas,” Beauval’s operations manager, Samuel Leroux, told France Bleu radio network.
It’s a similar story to 22 zoos in Europe, North America and Asia that currently hosts pandas in China. Many have taken advantage of the famous bears with many welcoming ceremonies, birthday celebrations and 24-hour “panda cams” for fans.
But bears aren’t just popular with the public. “It is often considered a major diplomatic coup to get a panda,” said Kerry Brown, director and professor at the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London.
‘Fluffy and friendly’
It would also be difficult – and potentially “diplomatically damaging”, says professor Astrid Nordin, also of the Lau China Institute – to downplay a panda’s offer.
A Finnish zoo earlier this year considered the idea of returned to his giant pandas to China, but has since decided to keep it.
The issue is the cost of caring for the bears: host countries usually pay an annual fee $1 million each pair of pandas, which has been reversed by China’s conservation efforts. The loans last up to 15 years, after which the pandas must return to China.
If a panda dies while it is on loan, there are penalties to pay. When 21-year-old Lin Hui died of multiple organ failure at the Chang Mai zoo in 2023, Thai authorities said they would be held responsible for a 15 million Baht ($435,000) insurance payments to China.
Nordin said the loan model is a “smart way” to ask host countries to shoulder most of the costs for maintaining and promoting a beloved Chinese cultural symbol. A similar model is used for Confucius Institutes, such as the one run by the Université Paris Cité, which run prestigious Chinese educational and cultural programs.
If the philosopher Confucius embodies the Chinese idea of wisdom, pandas promote a more playful image. As well as being big and strong, they are happy, cute and notthreatened.
Their bad reputation makes them a popular partner in trade deals – pandas arrived in France in 2012 after an agreement to provide China with uranium to generate nuclear power.
“Part of the message around the trade deal from Chinese quarters is that there is no reason to fear Chinese investment,” said Nordin. “The panda complements it very well because it represents friendliness and gentleness.”
Partner, competitor, rival
When China first started its policy of panda diplomacy, more than 50 years ago, it played a very different role on the world stage. At the time pandas were given as gifts rather than on loan, resulting in a decline in the number of non-Chinese giant pandas still living in zoo in Mexico and Taiwan.
Today, as an economic super power, “China is able to command admiration and respect from others – something it could not do when it started ‘panda diplomacy’ in the 1970s,” said professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
With more power and influence, China’s international relations have become more complicated, especially with the West.
“In many countries that have received pandas and the Confucius Institute there has been a shift to a rhetoric that is less friendly to China and less encouraging of engagement than before,” said Nordin.
The US describes China as both “major trade partner” and source on “economic and defense issues”. The past 12 months have seen tensions rise as former house speaker Nancy Pelosi made a high-profile visit to Taiwan and the US government accused China of sending aerial spy ware into US airspace.
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The EU officially considers China a “partner, competitor and systemic rival”. In 2022, it is said that the relationship with China “damaged” because of different positions on human rights, trade with Europe, economic pressure and the war in Ukraine.
“It’s very difficult for China and the West on have a healthy conversation at the moment. There are very few places where dialogue is not a problem,” Brown said. “Everything is an argument. The problem is [China and the West] are also closely related to each other. This is not the Cold War; it is something more complicated. ”
Compared to the scale of the conflict, a panda’s gift seems weaker, he said: “Like a quarreling couple where one of them decides to buy a miserable box of chocolates for the other to calm them down.”
At the same time, pandas remain the only – if small – area of frank agreement. Beijing wants to lend them. Zoos around the world love to receive them. Members of the public love to see them, as the lucky messages left for France’s first baby panda at the Beauval zoo show.
One is reading: “I saw you become black and white, grow up, make us happy, and soon leave. Have a good voyage, Yuan Meng.”