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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 13:24 GMT 14:24 UK
China's panda ambassadors
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

Hsing-Hsing was given to Richard Nixon as a gift from Chairman Mao
World leaders might once have felt slighted if they returned from China without at least one panda.

During the Cold War the animals were given as goodwill gestures, to such an extent that the term "panda diplomacy" was coined to describe the exchange of these furry ambassadors.

Taiwan is the latest potential recipient, after China offered to send two giant pandas to the island to mark a ground-breaking visit to Beijing by Taiwan's opposition leader Lien Chan.

World leaders usually give gifts to their foreign counterparts to mark an official visit.

Many monarchs and heads of state give birds, dogs or even racehorses to visiting dignitaries.

But for the Chinese, the giant panda is the ultimate gift.

"The panda is China's key cultural icon," said Phil Dean at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"It's a symbol of friendship and peace. It's cute and cuddly, and sends all the right messages of goodwill," he said.

Pandering to demand

Panda diplomacy began in earnest in the 1960s and 70s.

One of the most famous examples was Chairman Mao's gift of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to US President Richard Nixon in 1972.

It's a way for Beijing to say it cares about the people of Taiwan, and at the same time remind them that they are also Chinese
Phil Dean, Contemporary China Institute, Soas

Two years later, UK Prime Minister Edward Heath returned from China with two additions for London Zoo, Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia.

Some pandas proved less diplomatic than their donors had originally intended.

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.

But despite their occasional refusal to comply with official demands, Chinese pandas have proved important political tools.

In 1964, British diplomats were so concerned about the diplomatic ramifications of sending a panda named Chi-Chi from London to Moscow that one foreign office mandarin was quoted as saying: "It may have important results in exacerbating the Sino-Soviet dispute. I can see no political objection, but you may wish to warn the Secretary of State."

Panda fever

Eventually, so many pandas were leaving China that conservationists began to complain about the exodus.

A breeder of Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Base trains a baby panda in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, April 13, 2005
China has recently concentrated on conserving pandas

Giant pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued loss of habitat and a very low birth-rate, especially in captivity.

Only 1,600 are believed to survive in the wild, 1,000 of which are in the Chinese province of Sichuan.

Animal welfare groups argue that transferring pandas between countries is dangerous and a risk to their welfare.

"It's also not good to treat an animal as a commodity, and these 'gifts' set a poor precedent," said Rosa Hill, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Nowadays almost all pandas exported abroad are on loan rather than donated - and often their rates are pricey.

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 for the privilege, according to the Washington Post.

But the US was lucky - in recent years few pandas have been sent outside China, especially if they are not required for research purposes.

Of course, in China's eyes, donating pandas to Taiwan does not amount to sending them abroad at all.

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, though Taiwan's government does not agree.

Lien Chan (left) shakes hands with Hu Jintao - Beijing, 29/4/05
The gift is being offered to mark Lien Chan's visit to China

According to Phil Dean, the panda offer may work in China's favour.

Taiwan does not have any pandas of its own, and Mr Dean predicted that their addition to the island might cause "panda fever" to set in, as excited Taiwanese flock to see the animals.

He drew similarities with the intense American interest in Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling when Richard Nixon brought them back to Washington in 1972.

Pro-independence groups on the island, he warned, would be less keen on the plan.

"It will increase Taiwan's cultural links with China. It's a way for Beijing to say it cares about the people of Taiwan, and at the same time remind them that they are also Chinese," he said.

The pandas themselves are unlikely to be aware of the political fanfare surrounding their visit.

Pawns in a political game, they will be merely swapping one zoo for another.

China offers Taiwan giant pandas
03 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan head seeks Beijing talks
01 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Lien Chan's landmark trip
29 Apr 05 |  In Pictures


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