Is This What They Mean by Panda Diplomacy?

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Panda on a Plane

Panda on Plane
Netlore Archive: Viral image supposedly shows a real panda flying on a plane, calmly sitting next to a human passenger and eating bamboo shoots. Is this what the Chinese call "Panda diplomacy"?.

Description: Viral image
Circulating since: 2006
Status: The panda isn't real (details below)

Caption example #1:
As shared on Facebook, June 10, 2012:

This is a Real Panda. China has this "Panda Diplomacy" and this one will be sent to Japan as an friendship envoy. For safety reasons, he sits as a passenger with his feeder, not in a cage. Fastening the seat belt, wearing a diaper, eating bamboos.

Caption example #2:
As shared on Tumblr, January 26, 2012:

China Airlines is a proud corporate sponsor of the panda sanctuary at Cheng Du and was happy to help out recently with the transfer of a young panda cub to a zoo in the United States of America. After extensive consultation with the sanctuary’s veterinary staff it was concluded that the importance of the panda cub precluded it from traveling in the hold of the aircraft, where attending to its needs would be difficult. Thus China Airlines agreed to donate seats in its Business Traveler First cabin for the panda cub named Squee Squee and his carer, Fu Jiang Lang, seen here sitting in the window seat. In the interests of hygiene Squee Squee wore a plastic nappy to take care of panda poop during the flight. We are happy to report that Squee Squee arrived rested and relaxed after his 14-hour flight, and is settling into his new home well. During the flight we can report that he didn’t watch any of the flight movies as we couldn’t find a headset big enough for him. He did order the bamboo from catering menu, with a side of bamboo, and bamboo mousse for dessert.

Analysis: While China does have a history of shipping giant pandas to foreign countries as diplomatic gifts, the photo above does not document an actual instance of "panda diplomacy."

There are several reasons we know this to be the case:

1. Some airlines allow pets in carriers and/or service animals in the passenger cabin, but pandas are right out of the question. For one thing, they're too large. For another, they're wild. Cute and cuddly as they may appear, giant pandas can be "as dangerous as any other bear," say the folks at the Smithsonian Zoo. When they do fly in airplanes, pandas are relegated to the cargo hold.

2. I can find no record of any actual giant panda in captivity named "Squee Squee."

3. Contrary to what's claimed above, the airplane in question probably doesn't belong to China Airlines. How do we know? The non-English portion of the exit sign is in Japanese.

4. The plain fact is, the panda cub in the photo isn't real. It's either a life-size doll or a smallish human being wearing a panda costume. How can we tell? By comparing noses. A real panda's nose is triangular. The fake panda's nose is closer to round.

The captions, clearly fictitious and meant to be funny, were created at least two years after the image first began circulating on the Internet. The earliest posting of the image I've found is dated Nov. 2006. The earliest posting of the "Squee Squee" press release is dated Oct. 24, 2008.

Though I haven't been able to determine the exact origin of the photo, my best guess is that it was staged as part of an advertising campaign. For example, it bears certain similarities to a "Fly Panda!" TV commercial commissioned by All Nippon Airways, air date unknown. Not to mention a panda-themed Finnair commercial that aired in 2006. And a decidedly unoriginal British Airways ad campaign launched in June 2013.

Sources and further reading:

China Airlines Panda Photo Fools the Internet, 11 December 2012

The Picture that Fooled the Internet: Photo of Panda Flying Business Class
Daily Mail, 9 December 2012

A History of Panda Diplomacy
The Telegraph, 10 January 2011

On China Airlines, Pandas Ride Business Class, 7 December 2011

ANA's Fly Panda Celebrates 20 Years of Flying to China, 27 July 2007