China’s “panda diplomacy” is back in the public eye after the birth of giant panda twins at Korea’s largest theme park on Friday. The twins were born at the Everland theme park in Yongin, Gyeonggi, and formed part of the increasingly popular Bao panda family. Panda diplomacy, the practice of China sending giant pandas to countries as a tool of diplomacy, means the Bao panda family will eventually return to China despite millions of dollars of rent fees paid by the park. These pandas are seen by some as “white elephants” — expensive follies for Korea — while others insist the pandas are better off staying here.
All giant pandas in the world have been owned by the Chinese government under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) signed in 1973 to regulate cross-border trades of endangered plants and animals. Giant pandas made the endangered species list in 1984. “Any giant panda exported for loan, and its offspring, should remain the property of the Government of China,” the CITES reads on loans for giant pandas. China is able to use these giant pandas for diplomatic purposes under this convention, leasing the bears as a token of friendship between China and the partner nation. The Baos, the only panda family in Korea, first arrived in the country in March 2016 when mom panda Ai Bao and dad panda Le Bao were leased in celebration of Everland’s 40th anniversary.
Their travel to Korea was first discussed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the country in 2014. Xi and then-Korean President Park Geun-hye signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on wildlife and natural ecosystem conservation during their summit. This laid the groundwork for the panda rental deal, which was further specified under an MOU on joint cooperation of panda protection between Korea’s Environment Ministry and China’s Forestry Administration in the following year. Another follow-up agreement between the hosting party Samsung C&T and the sending party, China Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA), was signed that year on giant panda protection and research, fleshing out details on the Baos’ loan to Korea. This MOU stipulated that should Ai Bao and Le Bao mate and give birth to an offspring, the baby panda must be sent to China before it turns four — when giant pandas become sexually mature — with discussions on the return beginning after the cub turns three.
Fu Bao, the first giant panda born in Korea through natural breeding, was born on July 20, 2020, in the Panda World at Everland. She turns three on July 20. Ai Bao and Le Bao are on a 15-year contract that expires in March 2031 but can stay longer under an extension clause. The average lifespan of a giant panda is 25 years. “If these pandas eventually have to be shipped back to China, we’re only doing them a favor, paying to borrow the pandas and forking over new ones,” reads one of the negative Korean comments on YouTube. Samsung C&T pays $1 million to China every year for each pair of leased pandas. These contributions are used to support research on panda breeding. Food, accommodation and all other living costs are shouldered by the host.
But many Bao family fans, including Chinese fans, simply want the best for Fu Bao. “Fu Bao looks super happy with her granddad [panda keeper Kang Chul-won], I wish she could stay in Korea with him,” read a comment on Bilibili, a Chinese streaming platform. “Huge respect for Kang and his team, the pandas look so well-treated,” another one read. “Kang’s love for Fu Bao tears me up.” Kang had said on TV that he wants to consider matters from the perspective of the animals, hinting that he agrees to a point that Fu Bao should return to China to meet with her fellow species. “Fu Bao, you will always be my baby panda. I will stand by your side under any circumstance and am always thinking of you,” Kang said in a message to Fu Bao.
Kang added that if Fu Bao could speak, he would like to hear the phrase “I was lucky to meet you” from the panda. Samsung C&T, the operator of Everland, also refuted the notion it is handing money over to China and will not label the payments as “rent fees.” “The contributions we make are added to the fund utilized in giant panda research,” a Samsung C&T spokesperson said. “The leasing policy and contribution requirements apply the same for all hosts. We [make contributions to] offer the public an opportunity to see giant pandas firsthand and do not weigh the gains and losses to that end.” Fu Bao, whose name means “treasure of good fortune,” has been a celebrity in Everland since her birth in July 2020. Videos on Fu Bao’s life as a cub attract millions of views on YouTube.
She shot to popularity after Kang, known as Fu Bao’s granddad, appeared on a talk show on May 24 and talked about his eventual parting with the baby panda. Reminded of Fu Bao’s limited time in Korea, her fans rushed to Everland for a panda meet and greet. Attendance at Panda World, where Fu Bao lives, almost doubled in recent weeks compared to early May, which even had two long weekends, according to Samsung. The love that Koreans have for Fu Bao, nicknamed Princess Fu, also led to a spike in sales of panda goods. Sales of panda dolls, cushions and magnets at Panda World’s gift shop jumped 60 percent on year in May and June. Online sales of these souvenirs increased fourfold.
A photo essay containing the first-year days of Fu Bao, published in July 2021, has sold 15,000 units in the past two months. Some 9,000 units had been sold before. Compared to the early months of this year, Fu Bao emojis on Kakaotalk were sold 50 times more after Kang appeared on TV. Before the Baos, two-year-old pandas Ming Ming and Li Li were leased to Korea in 1994 for 10 years to celebrate the second anniversary of the establishment of Korea-China diplomatic relations. They were returned four years later during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis due to exorbitant rental fees. Designated “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, there are 1,800 giant pandas left in the world. BY SOHN DONG-JOO [[email protected]]