The bewitching power of the panda (Li Hongbo/VCG via Getty Images)

November 23, 2023   6 mins

One of my favourite childhood toys was a fuzzy little panda, with grippy arms that would cling to a curtain or bedpost. What I didn’t realise back then, as I doodled World Wildlife Fund-style pandas on my schoolbooks, was how distinctively modern panda iconography is. Its symbolism is intricately bound up with both the greatest achievements and deepest vulnerabilities of our modern age, including perhaps its most pressing question: are we technologising away our own capacity to self-reproduce?

The Chinese understand the bewitching power of the panda, using them as tools for soft power outreach and diplomatic communication. When, for example, all those animals on loan to the US and UK were recalled  earlier this year, experts in “panda diplomacy” warned that this tracked steadily worsening relations between China and the West.

But following Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United States, we’ve seen a further exchange of panda platitudes. First, Chinese officials hinted that panda loans to America might once again resume. Then, White House mandarins responded with enthusiasm. The geopolitical subtext is clear: US-China rapprochement may be in the offing.

The first modern instance of panda diplomacy was in 1941, when Soong Mei-ling, wife of Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek, presented “a chubby pair of comical black and white furry pandas” to an American zoo. At that point China had only been a republic for three decades, and these creatures made an ideal choice of Year Zero symbol: though widely distributed in the Pleistocene era, today they’re found only in a small region of central China, making them distinctively Chinese. Meanwhile, in a culture ancestrally rich with animal emblems, pandas came with neither astrological connotations nor — unlike the mythical dragons — symbolic links with the imperial rulers so recently deposed.

Following the Kuomintang’s exile to Taiwan in 1949, the early uncertainty of the Chinese Communist successor regime’s relationship with the West is exemplified by the story of the WWF’s first poster-panda. Chi Chi was born in the wild in Sichuan in 1955, and kept in Beijing Zoo for two years, before being loaned to Moscow Zoo along with another panda at the request of Soviet diplomat Kliment Voroshilov in 1957.

At the time, most panda gifts were bestowed on other Communist states, including several sent to North Korea, all of which died due to poor treatment. Chi Chi was more fortunate: sent back to Beijing after Russian scientists mistook her for a male and requested a female instead, she was sold to Heini Demmer, an animal broker, who sought expressions of interest from American zoos. But the US Government, who still recognised only the exiled Kuomintang administration in Taiwan, refused to allow her entry, asserting that the US embargo on goods from China extended to pandas.

Demmer took Chi Chi on a tour of European zoos instead, including a 1958 stop at London Zoo. It was originally intended as a short visit. But she proved so popular that the zoo purchased her, and she remained a star attraction in London for the rest of her life. Three years later, she inspired the naturalist and painter Sir Peter Scott to design WWF’s first logo, when the charity was founded in 1961.

Between Chi Chi’s arrival in London, until shortly after the WWF’s foundation, the postwar People’s Republic of China focused less on international relations than its own internal transformation. Over this short, brutal period, China embraced a regime-imposed version of the industrialisation that, in the West, had taken a century or more. Acclaimed by Mao as the Great Leap Forward, this five-year plan focused on boosting steelmaking and agricultural output, with little regard for side-effects.

The side-effects were numerous nonetheless. The most notorious was famine: an estimated 20 to 30 million Chinese citizens starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. But as the historian Elena Songster notes, another was ecological devastation. This was both due to new farming incursions into former wilderness, and also to a rise in hunting, as desperate people killed and ate anything they could catch. In turn, this prompted a shift in government policy from research to nature preservation, with Beijing mandating the creation of nature reserves, and new regulations to control hunting.

So the Great Leap Forward impelled a rapid shift in the Chinese state’s approach to the natural world — one that echoed shifts also under way in the West. Even as the WWF was founded, in the hope of protecting wildlife from Western depredations, new Chinese regulations both acknowledged the value of their natural resources, and also sought to preserve them from exhaustion.

As Songster recounts, a pivotal 1959 policy paper argued further that “rare and precious” species were valuable not just on commercial but also symbolic grounds. These national “monuments” showcased China’s uniqueness — especially the giant panda. Between 1957 and 1982, a total of 23 giant pandas were presented to foreign countries.

China has continued to industrialise and grow — and the relative balance of geopolitical power has shifted accordingly. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of once-imperial Britain’s relative decline in that balance, than the 1984 agreement by Margaret Thatcher to hand Hong Kong back to Beijing. But another CCP policy change the same year also reflected China’s growing confidence: the decision that panda diplomacy would henceforth be conducted not via panda gifts but panda leases.

As of 1984, all pandas are the property of the Chinese government. They are sometimes leased to foreign states in exchange for annual fees, but may be recalled at any time. Any baby pandas born to leased pandas are also the property of China. And panda leases serve not just as a vector for overseas diplomacy but also, within Chinese domestic discourse, as proxy for public sentiment concerning international relations. Ya Ya, one of the pandas whose US lease expired this year, occasioned outrage on Chinese social media when images showing her in apparently poor condition were published.

But these gentle creatures have also acquired other, less officially-sanctioned resonance. Pandas are notoriously reluctant to mate in captivity, and the birth in captivity of live panda cubs is a cause for global news headlines. Researchers have offered many explanations for this, including that simply being horny and in proximity to a panda of the opposite sex isn’t enough: pandas have to fancy each other too.

When shipped to Moscow to mate with An An, one of the other panda cubs originally shipped there from China, the WWF poster panda Chi Chi showed no interest in her prospective panda suitor. Instead, she expressed sexual interest in her human male keeper, suggesting that a lifetime in captivity had left her radically confused as to what desire is for.

And it appears that pandas are far from the only species reluctant to mate in captivity. The panda was an effective logo choice for the WWF not just for visual impact, but also because their distinct ecological niche is so obviously vulnerable to habitat destruction as a consequence of modernity. And as has become apparent in several decades of conservation effort, outside that wilderness niche pandas simply do not thrive.

It’s growing increasingly apparent that the extractive, resource-consuming aspect of modernity has a recursive effect on humans too. Over the century of panda diplomacy, rising economic and technological development has been paralleled by falling global fertility rates. Research suggests these phenomena are closely linked. Last year, China’s population began shrinking, too. The reasons for China’s now very low birth rate are complex, but suggested factors broadly resemble those in the developed West, and include expensive housing, social atomisation, and mutually exclusive demands on women to achieve both maternally and professionally.

Perhaps we could say of high-tech modernity across both East and West that, whereas we have been trying for decades now to protect elements of the natural world from the depredations of modernity, we have been less assiduous about extending similar protection to our own nature. The right to follow in Chi Chi’s footsteps and unmoor sexual desire from reproduction is enshrined as a moral and political desideratum, even as that reproductive end has itself variously been problematised and technologised. Much as with female pandas in captivity, who submit to all manner of invasive fertility-related procedures, human women in low-fertility countries are also now presented with (or exploited by) an ever more invasive battery of scans, studies, and procedures, framed by activists as normal — and with about as much of an impact on overall species fertility as scientists’ efforts with pandas.

It is far from clear whether China will ever resort to the Western strategy of kicking the demographic can down the road, by inviting inward immigration. In the meantime, once-meteoric Chinese growth is likely to level off, making China a less likely future threat to the United States — even as flattening domestic consumption makes wealthy, friendly overseas trade partners ever more appealing. As East and West confront their respective population-related challenges, then, we might read the brief halt and sudden revival of panda diplomacy as mutual acknowledgement that the superpowers probably need one another more than they need a new Cold War.

But if the central demographic challenge is the same for both, it’s far from clear that either has much idea of how to address it.

Back at the very germination of the modern age, in 1440, Thomas à Kempis pointed out that: “Wherever you go, there you are.” We owe most of what we call “civilisation” today to industrial and post-industrial modernity; but we now face the effects of that modernity on our own ability to self-replicate. We cannot, after all, create nature reserves for ourselves.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.