At first glance, China's new 24/7 panda cam, which officially launched Tuesday from the world's biggest giant panda reserve in far west China, offers its worldwide audience little beyond on-demand high-definition cuteness and, perhaps, an alternative to sleeping pills.
Pandas, I learned during two hours of research-oriented viewing spread over two days, don't do much beyond sleep and -- if you're lucky -- chew their food very, very slowly. Occasionally, they might also roll over.
Nonetheless, state-owned China Network Television has gone ahead and installed more than 30 cameras at the panda reserve, designed a fancy website from which those cameras can be accessed, launched a mobile app so the pandas can be watched on-the-go, hired program directors "ready to adjust camera angles to capture the most natural panda moments" and edit panda programs (such as "sexy lady"), and even inaugurated a robust social networking site, Panda Town, where panda enthusiasts from around the world can share their passion. The site's official domain -- iPanda.com -- testifies to its ambition.
There aren't any public estimates on what all of this cost, but it guarantees to have been considerable -- especially for ad-free programming of sleeping bears unlikely to hold even the most devoted panda enthusiasts for long.
So, then, what's the point of this state-sponsored panda extravagance? Hu Zhanfan, president of the state-owned media conglomerate that owns CNTV, told Chinese media that Panda Cam is "a gift to people around the world who love pandas and crave peace." That's a nice sentiment, but probably not one that he or anyone else who works at CNTV believes.
Rather, from the perspective of the government-funded programmers paying for it, iPanda is, in part, panda diplomacy for the digital age. In the traditional sense, panda diplomacy views the animals as cultural ambassadors sent abroad to foreign zoos, where they extend if not improve China's image. Panda cam shares that goal. After all, what better way to improve the overseas image of China as a polluted industrial dystopia than with 24-hour images of pandas napping in green bamboo groves?
On Wednesday, at least, Panda Propaganda appears to be working. During occasional visits to the site I found as many as 20,000 visitors viewing the cams (if the site's counters are to believed). Meanwhile, on Twitter -- a site blocked in China - panda cam-related tweets and links are being send out every minute or so. But perhaps the most notable mark of iPanda's success is that the "Today Show" blog tagged its entry on the cams as the "cutest thing ever." True or not, it's a notable step forward for a Chinese propaganda machine accustomed to being labeled with more ominous adjectives.
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Adam Minter at firstname.lastname@example.org