China's Panda Politics; Sure, They're Darn Cute and Cuddly. but They Might Be Trojan Gifts

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu and George Wehrfritz (With Jamie Reno in San Diego and Eleanor Clift in Washington)

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. …