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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 December 2005, 00:36 GMT
Pandas 'sparked diplomatic fears'
By Ollie Stone-Lee
BBC News reporter at the National Archives, Kew

The cost of imported bamboo shoots caused worry
Two pandas in London Zoo sparked fears that a diplomatic rift could flare up between Britain and China in the 1970s, newly-released papers have revealed.

The two pandas, Ching-Ching and Chia-Chia, were given to Edward Heath by the Chinese Government in 1974.

Later that year, London Zoo urged ministers to provide money to help build a home for the pandas.

The Foreign Office feared failure to give the cash could be seen as a deliberate snub to Beijing.

The fears are shown in Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson's files from 1974 and 1975, now at The National Archives in Kew.

White rhinos

Lord Zuckerman, a senior figure at London Zoo as well as a roving ambassador for successive prime ministers, met Wilson in November 1974 to discuss the pandas.

He said that "being agent for friendship between the British and Chinese Governments was proving to be a pretty expensive business" for the London Zoo.

As well as the cost of keeping pandas fed on imported bamboo shoots, it also had to provide a pair of white rhinos to send back to China.

Given the notorious sentiment of the British public about animals, this could make the government look unnecessarily unsympathetic
Foreign Office memo

The zoo wanted to launch a public appeal, with the Foreign Office making a generous contribution.

Wilson did not object to the appeal. He did not commit public money but asked for a report.

Lord Goronwy-Roberts, a Foreign Office minister, met Zuckerman and was told the zoo needed 70,000 to build the pandas' home and was almost bankrupt.

Goronwy-Roberts warned that the Chinese would see it as a "deliberate rebuff" if the government did not contribute money after their handsome present "to the British people".

"Through no fault of our own, we are incurring suspicion in China, particularly over our relations with the Soviet Union, and are not so far able to fulfil our manifesto commitment to improve relations with China," he said.

"It seems silly to exacerbate the problem in this way."

Pandas and politics

Goronwy-Roberts said Zuckerman had "tried to keep the pandas out of party politics" but some Conservative MPs might seize on the issue.

His fears were passed on to Downing Street with the Foreign Office warning that the press could play up any refusal to help.

"Given the notorious sentiment of the British public about animals, this could make the government look unnecessarily unsympathetic," it said.

The Foreign Office took up the issue with the Department of the Environment, which already subsidised some building at the zoo.

But an environment minister said his department had already promised to give 700,000 towards buildings at the zoo.

When it had asked the Treasury for more cash for a "carnivore complex", it had made clear the zoo did not expect government help for housing the pandas.

In the end, Goronwy-Roberts told Zuckerman the government could not help, especially when it was already paying for the carnivore complex.

The files do not record any diplomatic fallout with China from the debacle.

China's panda ambassadors
03 May 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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