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China’s Panda Diplomacy

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China Power

China’s Panda Diplomacy

Like Confucius Institutes, pandas are one of China’s most potent tools in foreign relations.

What do politically minded visitors to a zoo feel when they stand in front of the panda bear’s cage? The previously cute panda may suddenly strike them as strange – there is an intuitive knowledge that this panda, constantly eating bamboo in front of a cheerful and amazed audience, is deeply charged with political agency.

A similar wonder overcame me while I was enrolled at a Chinese language course at the local Confucius Institute. Dawdling over a homework assignment, I came across a paper in which economists analysed the factors that determine where Confucius Institutes are established. They found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that China follows clear-cut economic and political rationales, leading to an under-representation of poor countries unattractive for Chinese trade. The next time I went to class, the building, textbooks, and teachers suddenly seemed all strange to me – an animism enlivened every object of the Confucius Institute with a political spirit previously unfelt.

Estrangement from the familiar is the start of every theory. Unfortunately, diplomacy has long been resistant to theorizing. Most works on diplomacy were written by former practitioners who, during their retirement, ruminate on witty anecdotes involving great personalities of the past. Not to dismiss such memoirs — much can be learned from them, but not in terms of their often too- fragmented theoretical propositions.

It was only recently that political scientists have embarked on exploring diplomacy systematically as a conceptual phenomenon, generating one unquestionable axiom: that of representation. As with any axiom, it is unprovable, but it is the taken-for-granted starting point for all further research. There is no agreement on how representation works in details – is it an imperative mandate or a free mandate? Does representation cover only certain behaviors or the whole status of a diplomat? While such intricate issues remain controversial, all scholars agree on the basic postulate that diplomacy is about people representing polities (most often a state) vis-à-vis another polity.

When Diplomats Aren’t People

It is often correctly perceived that the speech of an accredited Chinese ambassador is attributable to the Chinese government. It is “China” who spoke, not (just) the individual person. This is the basis of representation. But what is often forgotten, and still underexplored by academia, is how non-human material can represent polities – they are also diplomats, but mute (a notion borrowed from Anthony Colantuono).

It may sound ridiculous, if not provocative, to posit that the panda bear in the zoo is China; that the Confucius Institute is China. But this is merely an extension of the basic premise of diplomatic theory. Why should only human individuals be able to represent a state? In periods of conflict, flags (material objects) are burnt, walls are erected, monuments torn down; in times of better political mood, heads of states exchange precious gifts to each other, while embassy buildings in foreign countries enjoy a “sacred” legal status. Flags, walls, monuments, gifts, and the embassies re-present, i.e. “bring into presence,” a country, and actions toward these objects (e.g. burning a foreign flag) address the states they represent. The same can be said of any objects that are strategically deployed by any polity into another polity with the intent to extend representation.

Panda Bears and Confucius Institutes: Means of Conflict and Cooperation

And there are good grounds for sensing a foreign policy tool in the giant pandas that now reside in 25 zoos all over the world, or with regards to the Confucius Institutes now established in over 140 countries. Both prominently embody China’s modern public diplomacy; both are non-human material deliberately deployed by the Chinese government to the soil of other states; and both have, at times, served as the primary means of expressing inter-state sentiment – during times of both conflict and cooperation.

For instance, when the Dalai Lama visited Austria in 2013, China immediately threatened to take back the immensely popular panda bear from the world’s oldest zoo (at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna). Austria, whose total population does not even amount to a third of Shanghai’s, could not but respond with a re-assertion of the one China policy. Together with dozens other examples of “panda diplomacy,” this case illustrates how the panda bear has become a blatant foreign policy instrument. In terms of diplomatic theory, the deployment of panda bears to another country means that the other country accepts the extension of “China” on its territory.

Confucius Institutes have also served as vehicles of good interstate relations. Xi Jinping regularly attends the opening ceremonies of Confucius Institutes, often with prominent local counterparts. However, their political nature has been repeatedly exposed in contestations based on concerns regarding academic freedom, censorship, propaganda, and espionage. In the United States, at least two nation-wide associations of scholars have urgently recommended the closure of Confucius Institutes, following  high-profile cases that ceased Confucius Institute operation at various universities across the world. Scholarly research has likewise found that Confucius Institutes simply reinforce perceptions of a “China threat.”

The Popularity of Chinese Public Diplomacy Symbols

Unlike Confucius Institutes, however, panda bears still remain wildly popular, with governments and zoos from all around the world eager and happy to welcome them. China is generous at donating them, and Chinese language beginner’s textbooks (such as the ones I used at the Confucius Institute) often contain texts proudly stating how “waiguo pengyou” (“foreign friends”) attach deep love to pandas.

But if one is to apply the perspective of diplomatic theory, then perhaps governments should be less enthusiastic about them. Each panda bear extends representation of China on the recipient country’s soil. Nevertheless, the panda, as the “cutest part of Chinese public diplomacy,” has proven itself to be a powerful weapon in external affairs. Precisely because it affects people’s emotions by being so loveable, it can effortlessly penetrate into foreign territories.

One should mention that the notion of political representation is a theoretical axiom not only applicable to China, but to all countries. For instance, why does Poland contest the Nord Stream II pipeline? Certainly not because Poland opposes the transmission of cheap gas to Europe, but because to them (and from a theoretical perspective), the pipeline is Russia. Why do some countries ban Twitter? Because if their inhabitants “follow” American (and other) politicians on Twitter, they constantly carry the “United States” (and other foreign countries) in their pockets. No authoritarian regime would grant such a profound foreign penetration into their population’s lives. And why does Switzerland traditionally prohibit its citizens from accepting a state award from a foreign country? The reader can guess.

Another caveat: Diplomatic theory only seeks to explain how conflicts or power plays occur in international relations (admittedly, in abstract and system-level terms). It does not give specific policy prescriptions, and no value judgments are attached to whether the deployment of panda bears or Confucius Institutes is good or bad – there are many obvious advantages. The notion of non-human material representing a state is simply a tool of analysis to assist our understanding of why state awards are forbidden, pipelines contested, monuments torn down – and why Russia banned the Chinese social media app WeChat in May 2017.

The fact that Confucius Institutes are countered with increasing opposition simply fits this pattern. The popularity of panda bears, on the other hand, is an anomaly – and anomalies require great caution.

Andreas Pacher is Editor-in-Chief of Nouvelle Europe. He has published on various aspects of diplomacy in academic and journalistic outlets. He received his higher education at the University of Vienna (Austria), at SciencesPo (Paris), and at Fudan University (Shanghai).