Unlikely ambassadors: Panda diplomacy

China's decision to give a pair of bears to Taiwan may seem like a friendly gesture after years of enmity. But the recipients of the present are not pleased. Clifford Coonan in Beijing reports
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Giant pandas, China's cultural icon, are cute, cuddly and almost universally popular. China has picked out two one-year-old pandas, a female called No. 16 and a male called No. 17, from the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan province, and the docile beasts have been offered to Taiwan as a carefully weighted token of goodwill. Panda diplomacy is back in a big way.

To make sure they have no problems adjusting to life on the island that mainland China considers a renegade province, the pandas' keepers have started giving them lessons in understanding the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese, Minnanhua, piping in songs and radio shows from the island.

"After the state forestry bureau announced the pandas would be sent to Taiwan, workers at the centre became a little worried. To help them to get used to their future language environment more quickly, two of the workers started to study Minnan dialect and sing Minnan songs," said Wolong director, Li Desheng.

Despite the cheerful tone of this latest round of political pandas, there is a hard political aspect to the offer, and Beijing has accompanied the gesture with regular broadsides against Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, accusing him of cranking up cross-Strait tensions by supporting formal independence.

A national emblem that brings good luck, the panda is a potent symbol in China, where they are called da xiong mao ("big bear cat") and people in Taiwan are keen to welcome the bears.

But Taiwan's leaders are furious at being put into a position where they will have to accept the popular pandas.

Beijing has a history of using the animals to win diplomatic points, stretching back over centuries. According to ancient records, Tang-Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian (624 to 705) presented two pandas to the Japanese court.

In September 1974, China sent Chia Chia and Ching-Ching as gifts to Edward Heath's government. They were not the first of modern times. Chi-Chi, another gift from China, arrived in London in 1958 and famously failed to impregnate An-An from Moscow Zoo. Ming-Ming, a female panda sent to mate with London Zoo's resident male, Bao Bao, was recalled to China in disgrace after the two fought each other and failed to produce any cubs.

Chairman Mao Zedong sent Richard Nixon a pair in 1972, though it is not known if Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling were given lessons in American English. Pandas became the public face of the blossoming relationship between the two countries.

All in all, in the period from 1958 to 1982, China sent a total of 23 pandas to nine different countries, including the Soviet Union, North Korea and France. The panda gifts were becoming so common that conservationists began to complain.

It's easy to see how the panda, the embodiement of non-aggression, earned its diplomatic credentials. The traditional image is that of a giant teddy bear lumbering about harming no one. Watching them roll around and play with each other as they chew on their bamboo stalks, at times they look like children wearing panda suits, so human are their displays of affection and mischief.

Though generally shy, cheerful pandas will frequently allow people to sit and feed them apples at the Wolong reserve, which is leading the drive to keep pandas from dying out.

These days, panda diplomacy is more complicated than it used to be. There are only 1,590 pandas in the wild and 180 in China's five major breeding facilities, which makes them one of the world's most endangered species.

Zoos abroad have to pledge to keep the bears well and pay more than £500,000 a year to keep the pandas for 10 years. After that, the pandas go back to China to be reintroduced into the wild or be put into Chinese zoos. When Washington was given Tian Tian and Mei Xiang in 2000, as replacements for its original pandas, they were on a 10-year loan and private donors paid $18m (£9m) for the privilege.

They are famously poor breeders - they spend most of the year on their own, except during a three-month mating season which begins in March each year.

Male pandas suffer from a chronic lack of sex drive -- more than 60 per cent of male pandas in captivity show no sexual desire at all, and only one tenth of them will mate naturally. Keepers have used videos of mating pairs in the hope that panda porn will help the bears get a bit frisky.

The female is fertile for just a few days each year, and the girls like to play hard-to-get.

Just like everyone else in China, pandas follow a kind of one-child policy. Females generally give birth to just one cub after a pregnancy lasting about 160 days and the cub weighs about as much as an apple when it is born. When two cubs are born, the mother will often abandon one or crush it in its sleep as she is not equipped to care for two.

The names of the two bears going to Taiwan will be chosen in a drawn-out and highly public competition designed to keep the Taiwan question high on people's minds on the mainland. Whether they are accepted or not remains up to Mr Chen but if they do cross the Strait, they will come complete with a hardline, anti-independence message.

Beijing and Taipei have been fierce rivals since they split after the civil war in 1949, when the losing Kuomingtang (KMT) forces under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, considered a renegade province by China.

But Mr Chen has domestic problems. He is fighting to boost his administration's flagging fortunes after Prime Minister Frank Hsieh quit, following a poor showing in local elections last month and plummeting approval ratings over his resistance to forging closer ties with the mainland.

China insists that Taiwan must eventually be reunified with the mainland and it has introduced controversial legislation, which it says allows it to take Taiwan by force if necessary.

Panda diplomacy, in this case, is backed with hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan across the 100-mile channel that divides China and Taiwan. The Strait is potentially one of the most explosive hotspots in Asia. The United States has pledged to back Taiwan if China should ever invade.

In his New Year's address, Mr Chen warned Taiwan's economy should not be too dependent on China - comments widely read as a sign of tighter economic policy towards the mainland. The message irritated business leaders on the island who want better ties to China - and it infuriated Beijing.

"Anyone who makes an enemy of his own people and compatriots will certainly reap a bitter harvest," warned Li Weiyi of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

In recent months, a number of President Chen's rivals visited the mainland, including KMT leader Lien Chan, and China has been keen to build on these propaganda gains by offering a brace of bears. In an article headlined "Peaceful pandas versus bellicose Chen", the China Daily used the pandas as a platform to attack President Chen.

"Stubborn as he is, Chen has to face the reality: he may be able to block the entry of the panda couple but he cannot stop the Taiwanese people's love for the pandas, or aspirations for cross-Straits peace and stability," the editorial ran.

The Taiwanese concede they may have to take the pandas but they are not happy. "It looks like they insisted on sending them to us, and we have no choice but to accept them," said Joseph Wu, the cabinet official in charge of relations with the mainland. "It shows severe disrespect to us." Taipei will only accept the pandas if China agrees to the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and allows Taiwan to sign an agreement as an "importing country".

The mainlanders say the transfer of the pandas does not fall under the remit of the convention, as donating the pandas would not be an international transfer, as Taiwan is part of China.

Yesterday, Li Yuchen, the winner of the hugely popular TV programme Supergirl, the Chinese version of Pop Idol, sponsored a panda at Wolong and attracted so many screaming fans to the ceremony that the panda fainted with shock. Diplomats they may be, but they are uncomfortable with celebrity.