The Big Question: Why is the panda so revered, and is it China's most powerful secret weapon?

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Why are we asking this now?

China has wheeled out its black and white furry secret weapon, the Giant Panda, in an attempt to cement relations with Taiwan, the island which Beijing considers an inalienable part of its territory. Relations between the mainland and Taiwan have improved since the election of China-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and now Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose names said together mean "unite", are at the vanguard of efforts to take relations a stage further.



Why use pandas to score diplomatic points?

Beijing has a long history of using pandas in international relations. It first used panda diplomacy wit Richard Nixon in 1972 when it sent a pair of the docile beasts to Washington following the US president's historic visit to China. Two years later the British prime minister Ted Heath was the recipient of a pair of pandas, whose on-off mating attempts at London Zoo gripped the public's attention. Long before all that, the Empress Wu presented a pair of pandas to the Emperor of Japan in the seventh century, and il Generallissimo Chiang Kai-shek gave another brace during the Second World War.

Beijing and Taipei have been fierce rivals since they split after the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the losing Kuomingtang forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. China has always claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, vowing to bring it under its rule, by force if necessary. For its part the US has pledged to intervene if China should try and take Taiwan back.

Beijing first announced in May 2005 it would donate two giant pandas to Taiwan, but their departure has been delayed for more than three years. The giant panda might be a beast that spends most of its time sleeping or eating bamboo but it has serious diplomatic muscle.



How does the Chinese public view these events?

There is a a strong swell of public opinion behind the sending of pandas to Taiwan as a way of encouraging closeness across that particularly deadly body of water. The bears come from Sichuan province, which was devastated by the earthquake in May, and are carrying a lot of goodwill on their furry black and white shoulders.

"I am reluctant to let them leave here," said Wang Xiaofang, owner of a shop several hundred metres away from the Bifeng Gorge Giant Panda Base. "Their departure for Taiwan represents the mainland people's wishes to promote cross-Strait relations," said Wang. "I hope they will bring goodwill to Taiwan."



Have relations been improving?

Last week Taiwan and China launched direct daily passenger flights, new shipping routes and postal links for the first time in six decades. China has also offered Taiwan investors on the mainland $19 billion (£13 billion) in financing over the next three years amid the global economic downturn.

China claims Taiwan as part of "one China", a notion many in Taiwan resist, especially the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that favours the island's formal declaration of independence from China. However, since Mr Ma's election, the leader of the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, has found himself in jail and in front of the judiciary over corruption charges, which he says are revenge for his pro-independence views.



Why are the pandas being sent right now?

There is obviously a strong political reason, but the earthquake in Sichuan province on 12 May added fresh impetus to the whole process. Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan were transferred on 18 June from the Wolong Nature Reserve, also in Sichuan, after the earthquake destroyed their home.

The pandas' move has taken over three years because of the political sensitivities involved and rows over when, and how, their move could be broadcast. "I have been paying great attention to the news about Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan every day," said Yu Yong, a Chengdu resident who plans to bid farewell to the pandas by watching a live broadcast on TV when they depart.



Who is looking after such precious cargo?

Two staff, a panda-keeper and a veterinarian, from the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan will accompany the pandas to Taiwan. Their keepers are bringing steamed buns and, of course, the panda staple of fresh bamboo.

Other necessities include motion-sickness pills and other medicines. Upon disembarking from their Boeing 747-45E in Taiwan, they will move into a four-storey building at the Taipei city zoo. They will have the first floor and an outdoor playground to themselves. After a month in quarantine, the pandas will face up to 30,000 eager visitors per day at Taipei Zoo.

What other proxy diplomacy has featured in China's past?

You should never underestimate the power of table-tennis in China, and in 1971, the US sent a 15-member table tennis team to play China for their first ever visit to the People's Republic after nearly two decades of estrangement and hostility between the two countries. This became the era of "ping-pong diplomacy" and Time magazine described the visit as "The ping heard round the world." It led to the lifting of a 20-year embargo on trade with China and ultimately, the visit by President Richard Nixon in February 1972.



Where – and how – do pandas live?

Pandas can only be found in the wild in China. Here they are rebounding from the brink of extinction, but not yet out of the woods – in large part because of difficulties in producing cubs. The animals are biologically unique. They are closely related to bears and have the digestive system of a carnivore, but they have adapted to a vegetarian diet and depend almost exclusively on bamboo as a food source.

Not designed to process plant matter, the panda's digestive system cannot easily break down the cellulose in bamboo, so pandas must eat huge amounts - as much as 83 pounds or about 40 kg, and for up to 14 hours, each day.

Pandas have a poor reputation when it comes to breeding, although in the wild they are just as capable of breeding as their American black bear cousins. However, in captivity they tend to lose interest in anything other than feeding, and experts have used unusual means such as panda sex videos in a drive to get the beasts to breed – with some success. They do not hibernate and have an average life span of 20-25 years in the wild, and up to 30 in captivity.

The bigger picture is that the panda population is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, because so much of where they live has been deforested and their natural domain is under greater threat as settlers push higher up the mountain slopes.



What next for the Taiwan pandas?

The hope is that the pandas will meet the public during the Spring Festival, the Chinese lunar new year. But according to Yang Hsiao-tung, the director of Taipei's department of information and tourism, this will depend on how they adapt to the new environment.

Will panda diplomacy help bring China and Taiwan closer together?

Yes

*The panda is a national symbol that is bigger than the 60-year schism across the straits of Taiwan

*Relations between China and Taiwan have never been closer

*China's offer to help with the slowdown is bound to be welcomed by the powerful business lobby. And the panda is a seriously cute animal

No

*The anti-China lobby in Taiwan feels that offers of pandas cheapens the debate about the island's future

*Many Taiwanese are keen to earn status at the UN – something the mainland Chinese do not like

*There is a feeling that it will take more than a few furry animals to advance the debate

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