China's Panda Politics

They spend most of their lives asleep. They bite. They're absurdly inept at sex. But in the realm of diplomacy, giant pandas have few rivals. For more than a thousand years, China's rulers have used the coveted beasts to win allies abroad. The 20th century's most celebrated pair, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling, arrived in Washington after Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. Now Beijing is hoping two other furry ambassadors can help resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts, the 56-year armed standoff between mainland China and Taiwan. When Chinese officials unveiled a pair of cubs early this year, calling them "a gift" to the island, the people of Taiwan went wild. Polls say more than 65 percent of Taiwan's population are in favor of accepting the mainland's offer.

But Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, is urging his government to say no. He fears that the pair would be what the press is calling "Trojan pandas." Skeptics see the animals as a perfect symbol for Beijing: no matter how friendly they look, watch out for their claws. They say it's no coincidence that a mainland-run contest gave them the names Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, echoing the Mandarin word for "reunion": tuanyuan.

Since 1949, Beijing has considered Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland--by force, if necessary. In past years, China's armed forces have staged massive military exercises directly across the straits from the island, and recently Chen has been testing Beijing's nerves with his campaign for Taiwan to be treated as a sovereign state. In an e-mailed newsletter last week, Chen urged the Beijing leadership to let Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan stay home in the mountains of Sichuan, not locked up in a zoo. "Pandas brought up in cages or given as gifts will not be happy," he said. The analogy to Taiwan's freedom was hard to miss.

The pandas' role in the dispute is not merely symbolic. On the contrary, accepting the pandas as a gift could be tantamount to accepting Beijing's claim that Taiwan belongs to mainland China. According to the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Beijing can make an outright gift of pandas to any zoo it likes within China. Foreign zoos are different: they can get the animals only on loan, in the form of a scientific exchange. For U.S. zoos, the price of those "scientific" deals can be well over $1 million a year. Nevertheless, Beijing insists that the pandas would be "a good-will gift" to Taiwan, "free and unconditional." "It's a very clever gesture," says Lo Chih-Cheng, head of a Taipei think tank. "If we accept them, it will trigger a domino effect."

And yet most people can't resist pandas. Pat Buchanan, a member of Nixon's 1972 China entourage, recalls how the White House, preoccupied with geostrategic issues, was utterly unprepared for the wild uproar that met Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling at the National Zoo. "The Chinese really scored heavily," he says. "We didn't realize what a smash they would be." Taiwan's Council of Agriculture is expected to give an official recommendation on whether to accept the pandas in early April, but local zoos are already investing heavily, hoping they will become the pandas' new home. The Taipei Zoo is building a $6 million climate-controlled "five star" panda enclosure. The private Zoological Society of Taipei has spent more than $100,000 to train zoo staff on the care and feeding of pandas. People can't wait. "At parties, friends come up to me and say, 'Hey, just give us the pandas!' " says Eric Tsao, curator of the Taipei Zoo.

Chinese authorities are urging Chen to respect the people's wishes. Never mind the obvious irony. Whatever Chen does, the panda lovers have a good chance of getting their wish sooner or later. Chen's term expires in two years. His approval ratings have sunk to dismal levels, and his pro-independence party lost badly in recent local elections. Meanwhile, Beijing has been waging a charm offensive, cutting duties on goods from Taiwan and inviting Chen's leading political adversaries to visit the mainland. Mainland officials say that Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are nothing more than a continuation of that policy. "It's absolutely inappropriate to call them 'Trojan pandas'," says Zhang Hemin, director of the Wolong Giant Panda Research and Conservation Center in Sichuan province, where the cubs were born and raised. His deputy, Li Desheng, agrees: "Pandas symbolize peace and friendship. This has nothing to do with politics."

Pandas need all the love they can get. There are only 1,590 of them living in the wild, and fewer than 200 in captivity. They're notoriously difficult to breed. But researchers at Wolong are slowly unraveling the mysteries of panda sex. The females are in heat only four days a year, and to compound the challenge, males have their own reproductive cycle. The center's keepers have designed special breeding pens to let the animals see and smell each other more easily, helping them to bond. Something seems to be working. The 2005 breeding season produced a historic bumper crop of rambunctious baby pandas. This February the center opened a new "panda nursery" with no fewer than 16 cubs under a year old, not far from the enclosure where Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are living. The babies romped in new-fallen snow, tumbled down a playground slide, dangled precariously from wooden platforms and grabbed keepers' legs in furry, black-and-white perpetual motion. With luck, they'll keep their species going at least a few more years.