Panda diplomacy: Charting China’s reform and opening up

Story highlights

China has long been sending pandas as gifts to other countries as a sign of friendship

The docile animals are often used as powerful political tokens

Hong Kong CNN  — 

What’s in a panda? A lot, actually.

Not only is the endangered species a beloved furry mascot for China, these docile animals are also a powerful political token. Known as “panda diplomacy,” China has long been sending its pandas as gifts to other countries as a sign of friendship.

This week a female panda in Hong Kong called Jia Jia turned 37, taking the title of the world’s oldest panda living in captivity. She was given to the city by China in 1999 to mark its transition from British rule two years earlier.

We chart the course of Jia Jia’s life in parallel with the extraordinary changes in China over the past four decades.

1978: Jia Jia is born in the wild

Deng Xiaoping is named paramount leader at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee – a pivotal moment marking the start of China’s reform.

Deng’s first order of the day is major agricultural reform to undo the disastrous collectivization from the Great Leap Forward that resulted in millions of Chinese starving to death.

1981: Jia Jia is captured in China’s southwestern Sichuan province

The Chinese Communist Party purges the so-called “Gang of Four,” a political faction led by Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing, and three of her close associates: Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen.

The political show trial, however, was mainly a propaganda tool designed to cement the power of the new leadership under Deng.

1989: World Wide Fund for Nature research reveals panda’s natural habitats have halved in 15 years

Tens of thousands of Chinese students gather in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. After more than a month of protests, the square was cleared in a bloody military crackdown.

The Chinese government’s response was widely denounced by the international community and that was reflected in the drop in overseas investments. Foreign loans to China were suspended by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and several foreign governments.

1999: Jia Jia and another male panda, An An, are sent as gifts to Hong Kong

Chinese GDP, which was clocking double digit growth for the better part of the 1990s, slows to 7.6% as it absorbs the impact of the Asian financial crisis, although state controls help it escape the brunt of it. That was largely due to the market controls set in place by former Premier Zhu Rongji.

The decade was marked by hyperspeed development and was crucial for all the economic and financial policy changes including the privatization of state-owned banks and the establishment of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges.

2007: Two more pandas Le Le and Ying Ying are given to Hong Kong

Eager to cement its status as a rising world power, China ramps up its space program and launches its first moon probe Chang’e 1. Despite this success, China is plagued by consumer safety scandals. Mattel, the world’s largest toy company – which makes Disney characters and Barbie dolls – is forced to recall over 18 million Chinese-made toys after lead paint was found to have been used in their manufacture.

A year later, the 2008 Chinese milk scandal would erupt with hundreds of thousands of infants dying after being fed melamine-tainted milk.

2015: Jia Jia turns 37, becoming the world’s oldest panda in captivity

China now ranks as the world’s largest economy, according to the IMF, usurping the title from the U.S. in December of 2014. It comes in second place for the most number of billionaires, only behind the U.S. It also starts relaxing its infamous one-child policy that was first implemented in 1980, finally allowing couples to have two children if either parent is an only child.