Panda Politics

Once again the rival regimes in Beijing and Taipei are engaged in a war of words, but this time the topic is pandas. Specifically a cute, cuddly, just-can't-resist pair of giant panda cubs which Chinese authorities have offered to Taiwan as a "goodwill gesture." Problem is, Taiwanese authorities are trying hard to resist what some call the mainland's "panda ploy."

Taiwan Premier Frank Hsieh said the island was unlikely to accept the creatures because to do so would "compromise our sovereignty." The reasoning goes like this: Pandas are an endangered species, and under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, pandas can only be lent--not given--by China to other countries. Taiwan has no pandas; the animals are native only to mainland China, where 1,590 live in the wild and 190 are being kept in zoos and breeding centers.

But the Beijing regime considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland--by force if necessary. So China can claim that the gift pandas are a "domestic transfer," in which the animals are simply moved from one part of China to the other. To accept the creatures--irresistible though they may be--would imply that Taiwan is merely a Chinese province, which is precisely what Taipei fears and Beijing wants.

So the darling animals have now been dubbed "the Trojan pandas." The controversy swirling around them are a legacy of the Chinese civil war, in which communist leader Mao Tse-tung defeated his rival Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Chiang fled to Taiwan, and ever since the island has governed itself but only a few dozen nations officially recognize it as a sovereign country. Beijing has been pushing for reunification all the while.

Now Beijing's panda offer becomes merely the latest dispute in this long-running drama. Earlier this month Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian made a get-tough speech on cross-straits relations, partly in response to his Democratic Progressive Party's losses to the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) in December's key municipal elections. In a move that displeased Beijing, he called for a new constitution and unveiled regulations requiring more stringent monitoring of Taiwan firms investing on the mainland. "Whatever China says or does to Taiwan, it has only one purpose--to annex Taiwan," said Chen. "Giving away pandas and offering preferential [commercial] treatment to the people of Taiwan are part of its measures to achieve this purpose. In view of this, to keep on tilting towards China is no different to committing suicide."

Pandas are such a symbol of the People's Republic of China that pro-Beijing Americans are called "panda-huggers" by their critics. Even today, the comic creatures are a phenomenal draw at the National Zoo in Washington. Back in 1972, Mao followed up on President Richard Nixon's breakthrough trip to China by giving a pair of pandas to the zoo--another gift with undeniable political intentions. The latest star attraction in D.C. is six-month-old giant panda cub Tai Shan who went on view in December to a frenzy of oohs, aahs and shutter-clicking panda adulation. Within two hours of being released, 13,000 tickets for panda-viewing were snapped up--and Tai Shan photos soon began selling on eBay.

Nor are Taiwan citizens immune to the lure of "panda diplomacy." News of China's offer has made headlines in Taiwan for weeks. The Taipei Zoo has already begun building a four-story multimillion-dollar panda enclosure; at least one other zoo is vying to host the animals. Panda mania has even gripped airlines vying for the honor of transporting the gift pandas across the Taiwan Straits. Federal Express wants the honor because it's previously flown two panda couples from China to the United States, and already has an aircraft dubbed the "Panda Express."

All of which has put many Taiwan government officials on the defensive, scrambling to justify their "just say no" stand. "Pandas are cute. But they will be ugly if they are politicized," says Premier Hsieh. Taipei's unwillingness to accept the cuddly animals made it necessary for authorities to work up a position paper to send to diplomatic offices overseas explaining Taipei's policy to the outside world, said Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Michael Ying-Mao Kau. "Beijing has manipulated the panda issue, resulting in misunderstanding and confusion at home and overseas," said Kau, calling Beijing's approach "irresponsible."

Meanwhile KMT opposition politicians welcome the panda gifts. Beijing made its recent offer during an historic mainland visit by then-KMT chairman Lien Chan last May. (The KMT favors eventual reunification and is squarely 'pro-panda' in the current debate.) Now a KMT legislator says she may call for a referendum to "let the people decide" this important foreign-policy issue. (In grassroots surveys, as many as three-fifths of Taiwanese citizens want the pandas, and many others don't object.) Taiwan's Council of Agriculture, which insists the animals cannot be imported without its permission, says it will decide by March 23.

Not surprisingly, mainland authorities are milking the situation for all it's worth. Officials have launched a contest to find nicknames for the two animals, a PR stunt slated to climax just before the popular Lunar New Year holiday which is celebrated on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. More than 100 mainland, Taiwan and foreign journalists were hosted at the Wolong Giant Panda Preserve and Research Center in Sichuan Province to witness the debut of the gift pandas, which were specially selected from an elite group of 23 cubs.

Chinese media has featured an orgy of "aren't they cute" panda stories. The official Xinhua News Agency recently reported that the panda cubs--called No.16 and No. 19--are already "cohabiting," before being "married," in order to enhance the affection between the two cubs. They enjoy all the creature comforts: a spacious new 600-sq-meter house in which the "bedroom" connects directly to a playground with rocks, climbing shelves and a pond. The fact that the two animals have "started to hug each other" while falling asleep is a good sign, Xinhua reported, because "adult giant pandas are more or less eccentric and tend to be very picky toward their sexual partner."

But the animals' adoring audience shouldn't expect any hot panda sex between Nos. 16 and 19 anytime soon. The animals don't become sexually mature until they're at least four years old. Besides, pandas are so fickle about mating in captivity that Chinese researchers reportedly have resorted to experimenting with everything from "panda porn" videos to Viagra-type medications to try to put couples in the mood. Over the decades, scientists have also perfected artificial reproduction techniques for the creatures.

Future panda cubs are a recurring theme. The one-year-olds earmarked for Taipei went through a stringent vetting process, judged by cuteness, psychological compatibility and genetic composition to help ensure that they'll mate and have attractive, healthy offspring. "Under the good care of Taiwanese compatriots, the giant pandas will surely do well and have descendants," the head of the Sichuan center Zhang Hewen was quoted as saying. He also volunteered to share the mainland's artificial reproduction techniques with his Taiwanese counterparts.

The anthropomorphizing of No. 19 (a male called Xiao Guaiguai or "little darling" by his handlers) and No. 16, the female, has reached almost comic levels. We know their astrological signs (Virgo), their favorite foods (duh, bamboo, as with all pandas), hobbies and pedigree. No. 16 excels at climbing, has a keen sense of balance, and seems an excellent candidate because her mother bore six cubs. Turns out Xiao Guaiguai is even more of a diplomatic icon since he's the first "son" of "the well-known U.S.-born panda beauty Huamei," which translates into "China-America," Chinese media reported.

Such hype may seem like so much panda madness--but many China-watchers figure the Beijing regime is simply being crazy like a fox. In addition to offering the Taiwanese one of the world's rarest and most irresistible animals, Chinese authorities also hold out to them the prospect of their very own, made-in-Taiwan baby pandas. It's an offer the island's citizens may find difficult to refuse.