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25 September 2013updated 13 Dec 2013 10:20am

Panda diplomats: can you put a price on cuteness?

How China uses pandas to help secure long-term trade deals.

By Sophie McBain

The pictures of the 14 baby panda cubs born at a breeding centre in Chengdu in China were published around the world. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by their cuteness (in my completely objective view) –  but can you attach a monetary value to how adorable they are? A report by Cambridge University suggests you can. It explores the way in which China uses loans of giant pandas to strengthen its trade relations and secure long-term, multi-billion pound contracts for the raw materials it so desperately needs.

The lending of Tian Tian to Edinburgh Zoo in 2010 occurred alongside negotiations over a ₤2.6bn deal to supply China with salmon meat, land rover cars, and petrochemical and renewable energy technology. China’s 2012 panda loan to France coincided with a $20bn trade package, and the loan of a pair of pandas to Canada was perfectly timed with China’s $2.1bn purchase of the oil sands company Opti Canada and the purchase of seal meat. China is particularly hungry for uranium, because of its plans to expand its production of nuclear power, and this accounts for panda loans to Australia and France, according to the report’s authors.

Similarly, China has asked for loan pandas to be returned as a way of signalling discontent with other governments. For instance, China asked for two US panda cubs to be returned after China warned that if Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama, this would damage trade ties.

One of the reasons pandas are such useful diplomats is because of how popular they are with zoo goers, firstly because of their distinctive teddy-bear like appearance, and secondly because they are rare – there just under 2,000 left in the world. A panda loan attracts a lot of positive publicity for China, and domestic zoos can expect increased ticket sales and merchandise deals.

When China first started exploring the potential of panda loans, it sought to profit in a more direct way, charging local zoos $50,000 a month as a fee, as well as a percentage of merchandising sales. Even today, China retains ownership of any cubs that are born overseas, and charges $500,000 if a panda dies due to human neglect.

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Their usefulness as goodwill ambassadors is good news for pandas, too – it gives Chinese authorities an extra incentive to keep up captive breeding projects and protect the remaining 1,600 wild pandas. 

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