Pandas, Passion and a Matter of Very Delicate Diplomacy; as China Loans Britain a Pair of Pandas, Will They Produce Our First Ever Cub -- or Have We Been Sold a Pup?

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Byline: by Jane Fryer

AT SOME stage this year, two exceptionally important Chinese diplomatic envoys will be transported with great pomp and ceremony through the gates of Edinburgh Zoo.

Their arrival has been hoped for, discussed, negotiated and argued over by scores of very important people for more than five years. A team of royals and top politicians including Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, Gordon Brown and (the then) Foreign Secretary David Miliband worked tirelessly to entice them here.

Their arrival, on an as yet unconfirmed date, will be marked by national celebrations and jubilation, commemorative mugs, a huge security operation and blanket media coverage.

Oh yes, and the delivery of many tons of Chinese bamboo.

For these important visitors are neither statesmen nor businessmen, but a pair of seven-year-old giant pandas called Tian-Tian and Yangguang.

The pair -- whose names translate as 'Sunshine' and 'Sweetie' -- will have been dosed with travel sickness pills and sent thousands of miles from the Wolong Panda Breeding Centre in the Sichuan Province of China. They will then settle into the old gorilla enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo for the next decade, making them the first giant pandas to reside in Britain for more than 17 years.

Ever since the purchase of Chi-Chi the giant panda in 1958 for [pounds sterling]12,000, the British have adored pandas.

Chi-Chi fast became a national heroine. She provoked an explosion in zoo visitor numbers, was constantly in the news, became the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund and was fed on bamboo from the garden of Daphne du Maurier's neighbour.

It is hoped that these latest panda imports will bring a little of Chi-Chi's magic with them -- and not least to Edinburgh Zoo, which has been struggling lately and has been forced to close its exotic bird enclosure after a drop in visitors.

Indeed, such is the draw of a pair of pandas -- the giant panda is one of the best-loved symbols in the world, and used to sell everything from electronic goods and fizzy drinks to chocolate and cigarettes -- that not only are visitor numbers expected to double to more than a million a year, but research, tourism and sales of furry merchandise are all predicted to shoot up, too.

And, after nearly 80 years of dismal and embarrassing failure, every hope is pinned on Tian-Tian (the female) and Yangguang making history by producing Britain's first ever panda cub.

Which all sounds wonderfully exciting, and doubtless the keepers (and accountants) at Edinburgh Zoo will be high-fiving in excitement.

But there is more to this than a cuddly animal kingdom love-in. For these pandas were not a gift from one nature conservation group to another, or even a straightforward loan from one.

EDINBURGH Zoo will have the pair for ten years and will have to pay handsomely -- about [pounds sterling]600,000 a year -- for the privilege.

In actual fact, they form a key part of a [pounds sterling]2.6billion trade deal signed this week by the UK and Chinese governments, witnessed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqlang, and including deals with Jaguar Land Rover and Scotland's biggest mainland oil refinery.

So it is that the 'Panda Deal' marks a return to the days of international 'Panda Diplomacy' -- an age-old tactic whereby China gave pairs of pandas (the country's unofficial national emblem) to governments around world to sweeten foreign relations.

It all started back in the Tang Dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian (625-705) despatched a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor.

But 'Panda Diplomacy' really came into its own during the Cold War, with the Chinese government giving away 23 furry black and white ambassadors to nine different countries between 1958 and 1982 on a diplomatic charm offensive.

One of the most famous examples was Chairman Mao's gift of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to U. …