Bao Bao’s first birthday party took place exactly a year ago Tuesday at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Among the hundreds of people in black-and-white visors, gathered there was Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States. The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China had helped organize the event. As Bao Bao rolled around and ate honey from bamboo shoots, Tiankai and the National Zoo director chewed on dandan noodles and smiled for the cameras.
The Chinese government has for half a century gifted or leased giant pandas to the U.S. in a practice that foreign relations experts refer to as “panda diplomacy.” So the birth of giant panda twins at the National Zoo on August 22 has global implications.
Historians believe a Chinese ruler first gave pandas as gifts to the Japanese in the seventh or eighth century, and Chinese leaders again picked up the practice during the Cold War. In a 2013 article published in the journal Environmental Practice, researchers with the University of Oxford identify three phases of panda diplomacy.
The first occurred during the Mao Zedong era in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Chinese were “gifting pandas to build strategic friendships,” the researchers write. One pair went to President Richard Nixon in 1972 following his historic trip to China.
Nixon gave those pandas to the National Zoo. The first lady and members of Congress attended their public debut, says Pamela Henson, a Smithsonian Institution historian. “The first weekend, 24,000 people came to see them,” she says, an unprecedented reception.
Those pandas lived until 1992 and 1999. The female had five cubs, but none survived.
A second stage of panda diplomacy, say the Oxford researchers, began in 1984, after Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao and made economic reforms. By that time, China had gifted 24 pandas to foreign leaders. In that second phase, pandas “became gift loans involving a capitalist lease model.” Chinese officials charged a fee for foreign zoos to lease the animals.
In 1991, the Chinese changed the program from short-term leases to long-term leases in order to encourage breeding. In 1998, the World Wildlife Fund filed a lawsuit over panda loans to American zoos. Since then, at least half of lease fees must go to wild panda conservation.
In 2000, the National Zoo received two pandas—Mei Xiang and Tian Tian—from the China Research and Conservation Center in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, China. The Chinese leased them for 10 years; in exchange, the Smithsonian contributes $550,000 per year to Chinese conservation efforts, says Pamela Baker-Masson, a zoo spokeswoman.
The zoo participates in a Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement. “If a cub is born at the zoo, it will stay until the age of 4,” the Smithsonian said when the agreement was last renewed in 2011. That renewal also added five years to the leases on Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. “Both parents and any offspring remain under the ownership of China.” The agreement expires in December.
“We’ve had a terrific working relationship with the Chinese,” Baker-Masson says.
Panda leasing is serious business. “Panda agreements are signed off at the highest government level,” the researchers write. They say that if a panda dies due to human error, the Chinese can impose a $500,000 fine.
A third panda diplomacy phase dates to 2008, when the researchers say an earthquake destroyed many panda habitats. Since then, they write, panda loans have been “associated with nations supplying China with valuable resources and technology.” The researchers matched the time lines for panda loans with trade agreements. In Scotland, a loan coincided with a $4 billion deal between the two countries for goods exports and renewable-energy technology. A loan to France happened at the same time that the countries were negotiating a $20 billion deal for a uranium treatment plant.
“Panda loans are not simply part of a larger deal; rather they represent a ‘seal of approval,’” the researchers write.
Giant pandas are the rarest type of bear, and they eat almost exclusively bamboo—as much as 84 pounds of it in a single day. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified pandas as endangered since 1996. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates there are 1,864 giant pandas in the wild. The WWF reported in February that conservation efforts had contributed to an almost 17 percent population growth in a decade. Some 333 pandas lived in captivity as of 2012.
“Anytime you have an endangered species being born and generating the kind of excitement that two baby pandas have, that’s a good and exciting thing,” says Colby Loucks, a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund. “What I’d like to see is a move to generate...excitement around wild pandas being born in China.”
The newborn twins were products of artificial insemination. On August 19, the Smithsonian announced that Mei Xiang was pregnant. On August 22, it said she had birthed a cub. The second one was a surprise.
“About the time the team who was present for the first cub was starting to relax for the evening, we all got phone calls saying that the second cub was on the ground. So that changes everything,” says Dr. Don Neiffer, chief veterinarian at the National Zoo. “Female pandas have a lot of challenges with raising two cubs without intervention. It kind of changes the game 180 degrees. Literally, we went from zero to 60 in terms of the amount of care we were going to provide for the cubs.”
He adds, “Everybody is doing great,” saying the twins are “both vocalizing, they are both receiving calories.” The zoo is not yet sure if the twins are male or female.
The Smithsonian typically does not name its panda cubs until after 100 days, Henson says. Given the rise of social media, she adds, this has been the most followed panda birth at the Smithsonian, with coverage on Periscope, Instagram and elsewhere.