A Pregnant Panda is a Political Animal - SOAS China Institute

//A Pregnant Panda is a Political Animal

A Pregnant Panda is a Political Animal

A panda at the Oji zoo in Kobe, Japan. – Photo credit: pelican (Flickr)

By Duncan Bartlett | 18 June 2021

It costs zoos a million dollars a year to host a Chinese panda. Tokyo Zoo has three and they’re treated as VIPs.


They’re also diplomats, as China views its pandas as “special envoys” to countries like Japan. Duncan Bartlett considers the diplomatic implications if one of Tokyo’s star attractions, Shin Shin, has another cub this summer.


A new issue has risen to the top of the political agenda in Tokyo: is the giant panda Xiang Xiang soon to be joined by a sibling?


Xiang Xiang lives at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo and this summer, the city’s governor, Yuriko Koike, announced that the cub’s mother, Shin Shin, is showing signs of pregnancy.


It is fortunate that pandas are tolerant of press intrusion into their private lives, as the sexual behaviour of Shin Shin and her partner Ri Ri has been reported all over the world, including on the BBC, Russia Today, Arab News, Bloomberg and The Economist.


The media inform us that Shin Shin began to show signs of heat on March 4th, and was found mating with Ri Ri, on March 6th.


Shielded from view


Shin Shin’s been out of the public eye since then and has not been seen since the zoo recently reopened, following the easing of coronavirus restrictions.


NHK used its briefing with China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, to address the issue.

NHK: Japan's Ueno Zoo has announced that giant panda Shin Shin may be pregnant. What is China's comment?

Wang Wenbin: I haven't seen the relevant report. What I want to say is that the giant panda is a national treasure and a name card of China. It is deeply loved by people of all countries including Japan and a well-deserved envoy of friendship. We hope Shin Shin will give birth to the cubs smoothly.

China loaned the pandas to Japan ten years ago, when diplomatic relations between the nations were in a better state than they are now.


Xiang Xiang, who was born in June 2017, was due to be returned to China last year, but the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which manages the zoo, was able to negotiate an extension of her stay.


Her parents are set to remain in Japan for another five years, although a new cub might change matters. On China’s side, there will be an expectation that the pandas are well cared for and Sino-Japanese relations remain stable.


Political animals


The South China Morning Post shed light on the politics when it ran an excerpt of an interview with Tsuyoshi Shirawa, who operates Shizuoka-based Rep Japan, which imports and trades zoo animals.


He said pandas were highly sought after by zoos in Japan – but they were “impossible” to obtain without Beijing’s consent.


“It is impossible to buy a panda because they are all owned by China, which charges what they term a ‘conservation fee’ of around US$1 million a year,” he said.


“But the business is entirely political. This is an animal that is very popular, rare and controlled by one country, so it is used by Beijing to buy political favours,” he said. “And any country that does not want to follow those rules simply has no chance of getting a panda.”

Illustration by Yuka Morita ©

Stock market rally


Even if the rumours of the pregnancy turn out to be false, investors are speculating it could lead to a boom at nearby restaurants.


Totenko, a Chinese restaurant chain, saw a spike of nearly 30% on the Japanese stock market. The company experienced a similar rise in 2013 and 2017 when the Zoo announced Shin Shin may be pregnant – although the first was a pseudo-pregnancy.


Meanwhile, share prices of French eatery Seiyoken closed 8% higher.


The BBC says both chains have large restaurants on the outskirts of Ueno Zoo and are frequented by its visitors.


Historical context

Panda diplomacy – the practice of gifting pandas to other countries to help foster diplomatic ties – is certainly not new.


An excellent piece of research by Juliette Pitt on the Dao Insights website claims that in 685AD Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty presented a pair of bears to Japan.


America received two pandas from China in 1941 in return for fighting the occupying Japanese. And according to Dao, Chairman Mao Zedong continued this practice in the 1950s by presenting pandas to favoured allies such as North Korea and the Soviet Union.


But the piece on Dao also raises the concern that moving the pandas around zoos as political favours is harmful to thier welfare.


It suggests it might be better to encourage counties to sponsor nature reserves in China to allow pandas to remain in their natural habitat.

Duncan Bartlett is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, and hosts the Institute’s weekly podcast, China In ContextHe is also the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and is a former BBC presenter.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.


A version of this article appeared on the website Japan Story which is edited by Duncan Bartlett.