Terence Blacker: Pandas - the world's most political animal

Panda diplomacy has always been a squalid business


With its cute and comical look, and its two lovely black eyes, the panda makes a great symbol. Just over 50 years ago, its image was chosen for the newly created World Wildlife Fund. Today, it symbolises an altogether uglier reality, closer to human cynicism than animal conservation. This week, it was announced that the two giant pandas hired by the Edinburgh Zoo from the Chinese government at a cost of £460,000 a year will be available for VIP visits. For £1,000, guests can have drinks, canapés and the chance to feed these luckless animals some bamboo.

There have been the usual unconvincing denials of financial motives. This is "not about extra money", the zoo's chief executive has said, adding, in what would seem something of a self-contradiction, that his organisation "receives no extra funding".

Panda diplomacy, the use of rare, delicate mammals as part of deals between humans, has always been a squalid business. When, in 2011, after a campaign involving senior politicians and the Royal Family, the Chinese agreed to loan two pandas to Edinburgh Zoo, the country's ambassador inaccurately described the deal as "a gift to the people of the UK from China".

The SNP was happy to play along with this lie – at least until it was taken to task this spring by the Advertising Standards Authority. What Alex Salmond had described in 2008 as "a commercial arrangement" was cynically presented in a series of advertisements as an act of "gifting", a "unique gesture of friendship".

It was neither a gift nor was it particularly unique: the Chinese have become adept at greasing the wheels of trade by shipping pandas across the world. Apart from the dishonest PR, there has always been something whiffy about this. Last week, after Canada did a similar deal with China to that done by Scotland, journalists asked to see the full memorandum of agreement. This was denied, bizarrely under a law protecting the country's national security.

The conservation argument, invariably deployed by politicians, is equally suspect. Alex Salmond once promised that, if Edinburgh landed the panda deal, "research will be carried out specifically in the field of oncology – an area of expertise in Scotland". Little has been heard of this claim recently, and it is anyway fairly meaningless. The only panda to have been released from captivity was quickly killed by wild pandas. The species, in other words, is being conserved exclusively for human enjoyment.

Admittedly, pandas serve their diplomatic purpose. Soon after the new arrivals were brought to Edinburgh, Salmond and his ministers expertly avoided offending their Chinese pals by absenting themselves during a visit by the Dalai Lama. The Scots gain, and so do the Chinese. It is the pandas, and the cause of conservation, which suffer.


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own