Giant Panda Tian Tian has a bamboo snack Jan. 20, 2011 at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Washington and Beijing signed a new loan agreement, under which China is letting the giant pandas stay at the zoo for another five years.
Credit: Karen Bleier

Maybe you thought a panda was just a panda. But you'd be wrong.

Coming from China, a panda signifies special friend status. And no panda means you might as well unfriend that superpower and try to move on.

"Panda diplomacy" has become a wildly popular way for China to soften relations with other countries.

From 1958 to 1982, China offered 24 pandas to nine countries, according to a China Hush article. North Korea got the offer five times, and the Soviet Union has received pandas twice.

The article, which was translated from Chinese at Netease, exposes the underbelly of panda diplomacy — its not so warm and fuzzy.

Pandas are finicky — they almost exclusively eat bamboo — and they aren't that great at reproducing. About 90 percent of males are sterile and 70 percent don't have the desire to mate.

And, like Ping-Ping who was sent to the Soviet Union in 1957, they suffer outside their natural habitat — which is basically everywhere that isn't China. Ping-Ping only lived three years after the move.

Among the 24 diplomatic pandas, most died of diseases in digestive system. Only one panda in Germany and three in Mexico had offspring that survived.

Here's an illustration of the number of pandas offered as gift from the China government from 1941 to 1982.

A big move in panda diplomacy occurred in 1972, when China gave Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to the Nixon administration. The pandas wound up at the National Zoo in D.C., and more than 20,000 people came to see them on the very first day they were on display. (Nixon returned the favor by giving China a pair of musk oxen.)

Just this past January, China and the U.S. inked a panda deal, allowing Tian Tian and Mei Xiang to stay at the D.C. zoo for another five years. Incidentally, this was around the time that Obama and Hu inked export deals worth $45 billion.A quick look at panda relations between Taipei and Beijing, for example, will mirror behavior outside of the zoo.

In 2005, Taiwan gave the mainland the cold shoulder when offered a panda, calling it a ploy to gain support for the reunification. But then, in 2008, a gift of two giant pandas to Taiwan sealed the deal on a year of blossoming ties.

In summation, a panda is never just a panda.

From 2005, Fang Ziang and his sister Fang Zixin from Taiwan pose with Jun Zhu", a giant panda, in Sichuan province, China. Jun Zhu was a possible cadidate to be picked as a gift to Taiwan, but the Taiwan government cold-shouldered the mainland's move, calling it a ploy aimed at building support for the reunification effort. (China Photos/AFP/Getty Images)

A policeman guards two giant pandas on Dec. 22, 2008. The two giant pandas waited to make their long-anticipated and highly-scrutinized trip from China to Taiwan, sealing a year of blossoming diplomatic ties between the two arch rivals. (Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, the two giant panda gifts from China, eat bamboo leaves inside their new enclosure at the Taipei Zoo on Jan. 26, 2009. City authorities spent about $10 million on the enclosure for the then 4-year-old pair, hoping to attract millions of visitors a year. (Nicky Loh/AFP/Getty Images)

Photographers take photos of a giant panda Ying Ying at Ocean Park in Hong Kong on June 30, 2007. The two giant pandas are the latest gifts from China to Hong Kong to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule. (AFP/GettyImages)

A newborn panda cubs in its incubator at the Madrid Zoo on Oct. 8, 2010 in Spain. Two panda cubs, born on Sept. 7, 2010, were the first giant panda twins to be conceived using the artificial insemination outside of China. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Incidentally, "Kung Fu Panda 2," the animated children's movie, is breaking box office records in China. It pulled in $18 million, the most ever for a film in China on opening weekend.

One Beijing performance artist, Zhao Bandi, is advocating a boycott of the movie, saying the film tarnishes the nation's beloved image of the panda.

Kung Fu Panda may be overweight and possess inferior marital arts ability, but at least he hasn't been ripped out of his home in Sichuan province and forced to learn acrobatics at the San Diego zoo.

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