Panda Love: China’s cuddly soft power

pandapanda-3A round-the-clock spotlight would make anyone feel like a celebrity. Now China’s famous and endangered giant pandas are the stars of a 24-hour live online channel,, exclusively dedicated to capturing the bears’ daily lives spent in their five gardens at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Sichuan province.

24×7 Panda Channel

Out of the 28 high-definition cameras set up by The China Network Television (CNTV), 11 cameras offering the best footage will be broadcast on the online channel, with viewers having the choice of six channels, including adult, child, infant and Mom & kid.

panda-2The launch of this channel has triggered a wave of excitement among the Chinese people. This is what some young Chinese had to say about their national treasure.

“The Chinese pandas will be popular all over the world.”

“Pandas are our national treasure, now the world can see!”

“Chinese people love pandas. But even for Chinese it’s hard to see a panda in the forest. Now everyone can see them.”

“Everyone likes pandas. They’re precious, they eat bamboo and they’re cuddly, plump and black and white.”

Centering on the idea that Chinese pandas will now be popular around the world, the local Chinese are proud of this new venture, which was a collaborative effort of The Communist Party of China with NGOs and foreign diplomats.

Mystical Powers

Historically, pandas were believed to have special mystical powers capable of averting natural disasters and driving out evil spirits from the land. They were also among the 40 rare animals that lived in the Emperor’s garden in Xi’an, China. Legend has it that the pandas used to be snow white, living in the mountains until one day, when a beloved shepherd girl died while saving a panda cub from a leopard, the pandas went for the funeral covered in black ashes and when they wiped off the ashes, it fell on their sleeves and smudged on their eyes permanently changing them into black and white creatures. This legend is a testimonial to the close relationship Chinese people had with their unique daxiongmao or big bear cat – the Chinese word for panda.

Panda Diplomacy

panda-nixonMore recently, pandas have morphed into China’s “soft” power diplomats ever since 1936, when the panda puppy Su Lin entered America and became a celebrity in the western world. However, it was only after the loss of many pandas that the Chinese government realised their rarity and their value in the western world. Finally in 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the government prohibited the poaching of wild pandas.  The 1950s could be considered as the starting point of the pandas’ soft power careers. However, there’s some proof that the panda diplomacy began way back in the Tang Dynasty when two pandas were sent as a national gift to Japan.

In 1972, when US President Richard Nixon visited China, he visited the Beijing Zoo to see the native animal treasure, pandas. Premier Zhou Enlai also gifted the First Lady with a Panda brand of cigarettes as a symbol of developing peaceful and harmonious relations.

Since then, China sent more pandas as gifts to other countries, among which the two pandas sent to the US and living in the zoo in Washington DC became wildly famous. Pandas are China’s unique gift to the world, and everywhere they go they are housed in the best zoos of the nation.

Culture of Peace

panda-canadaPandas quickly grew to become a cultural symbol for China, as they blended the qualities of sheer cuteness and peacefulness that gave them a universal appeal. Says conservationist Sarah Bexell: “They are the most peaceful species I have ever had the opportunity to work for. They are amazing mothers and have wonderful, peaceful and stoic personalities.”

“But I think one of my favorite qualities is their peacefulness. They really like quiet and calm and to be left alone in safety and serenity,” says Bexell, who has co-authored “Giant Pandas: Born Survivors” with Zhang Zhihe, one of China’s leading giant panda experts.

Now, left with just around 1600 pandas in the wild, the Chinese government is putting in great efforts to restore the panda population. Some pandas are given with special visitation rights to other countries, where they are placed in carefully selected zoos. The most recent panda couple made their way to Toronto zoo for a 10-year stay in Canada, earlier this year.

With this new panda channel broadcasting the softest and cuddliest Chinese diplomats, China can project its peaceful rise with more charm and elan.

(Neha Sharma is a writer-educator currently living in Dalian, China and is working at Dalian University of Technology.)