The People's Republic of China revived panda diplomacy in the 1950s and has become known in recent decades for this practice. From 1958 to 1982, China gave 23 pandas to nine different countries. One highlight of panda diplomacy was the Chinese government's gift of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the United States in 1972 after President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China (President Nixon reciprocated by sending back a pair of musk oxen).
Upon the pandas' arrival in April 1972, First Lady Pat Nixon donated the pandas to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where she welcomed them in an official ceremony. Over twenty thousand people visited the pandas the first day they were on display, and an estimated 1.1 million visitors came to see them the first year they were in the United States.
The pandas were wildly popular and China's gift was seen as an enormous diplomatic success, evidence of China's eagerness to establish official relations with the U.S. It was so successful that British Prime Minister Edward Heath asked for pandas for the United Kingdom during a visit to China in 1974. Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching therefore arrived at the London Zoo a few weeks later.
By 1984, however, pandas were no longer used purely as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on ten-year loans. The standard loan terms include a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision that any cubs born during the loan be the property of the People's Republic of China. Since 1998, because of a World Wildlife Fund lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda only if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat.
Pandas have become important diplomatic symbols, not only to China. In a visit by Hu Jintao to Japan in May 2008, China announced the loan of two Pandas to Japan. The President was quoted as saying "Giant pandas are very popular among the Japanese, and they are a symbol of the friendly ties between Japan and China."
Actions that other countries take with pandas are often seen as laden with meaning. For example, British diplomats worried that a 1964 transfer of a panda from a London zoo to Moscow would worsen Sino-Soviet relations.
In January 2006, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was photographed hugging a 5-month-old panda cub during his visit to Sichuan Province. The image was widely broadcast by the Chinese media and was purportedly interpreted as a sign that Zoellick supported better relations between China and the United States.
In 2005, Lien Chan, chairman of the Kuomintang, the then-opposition party in Taiwan, visited mainland China. As part of the talks between Lien Chan and the Communist Party of China (CPC), two pandas (later named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan) were offered as a gift to the people of Taiwan.
While the idea was popular with the Taiwanese public, it proved difficult with the Republic of China (ROC) government of Taiwan, then led by theDemocratic Progressive Party (DPP). The DPP supports Taiwanese independence and opposes unification with the People's Republic of China, and saw the gift of pandas as an attempt by the CPC to draw the ROC government into its "united front".
While several zoos in Taiwan made bids to host the pandas, the ROC government raised objections, ostensibly on the grounds that pandas were not suited to the Taiwanese climate and that Taiwan did not have the expertise to rear pandas successfully. It was widely understood, however, that these were underlain by political considerations by the DPP-led government to maintain its distance from the PRC government - WIKIPEDIAPUTRAJAYA: The Malaysian government today signed an agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), People's Republic of China (PRC) which will pave the way for the loan of a pair of giant pandas to Malaysia.
Their argument that the funds allocated for the upkeep of the Pandas could be put to better use appears nothing more than mere populist statements but the underlying message appears strange.