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China extends a friendly bear paw across Taiwan Strait

Beijing marked warming ties with Taiwan by sending two pandas, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, to the Taipei Zoo.

By Jonathan Adams – correspondent, Zhang Yajun – Contributor / December 24, 2008

Panda-monium: Girls waited to perform in a ceremony in China marking the pandas' delivery.

Nir Elias/Reuters

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There's economy class. There's business class. And then there's "giant panda" class – featuring temperatures of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius, all-you-can-eat cornbread and bamboo, and panda-sized doses of motion sickness pills.

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Those were some of the services provided for two giant pandas transported by airplane Tuesday from China to Taiwan. In a symbolic move of "panda diplomacy," Beijing marked warming cross-strait ties with the furry gifts, amid fanfare and a media frenzy.

China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting unification, by force if need be. So some in Taiwan fret about the gift's political overtones, saying the bears are unwitting (if cute and cuddly) pawns in Beijing's unification agenda.

Beijing's names for the pandas – Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, which together mean "reunion" – do little to allay such concerns.

"The Chinese leadership is working very hard to win the hearts of the Taiwanese people, and pandas are one of the more prominent gestures," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong. "That's why you see a playing-up of the whole episode."

But politics was drowned out today by panda fever, with a barrage of Internet commentary and breathless coverage in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese state-run media.

All went into overdrive, tracking the pandas as they traveled by road from their mountainside home in Ya'an, in Sichuan Province, to the city of Chengdu, and from there on a chartered flight to Taipei, where the panda-bearing plane touched down late Tuesday afternoon.

Chinese state-run TV showed footage of the two bears eating an apples-and- bamboo breakfast. A panda-doll-clutching reporter gave on-the-spot updates from the tarmac at the Chengdu airport. And one CCTV presenter gushed, "They're a legend in the panda world – they grew up together, they love each other, and now they're going to Taiwan together."

The pandas will be quarantined at their new home in the Taipei Zoo for about a month. The goal is to have them on display by Lunar New Year, which falls on Jan. 26, 2009.

Panda party preference

Beijing first offered the two pandas in 2005 – but not to Taiwan's elected government, which was then controlled by the pro-independence party. Instead, it offered the pandas to the more China-friendly Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), then the opposition party, when its chairman made a trip to the mainland.

That end run around Taiwan's official institutions was unacceptable to the government, which refused the bears entry.

Trojan panda?

But after the KMT retook power in Taiwan in May on a platform of improving cross-strait ties, the door was flung open.

Now, the island's pro-independence figures can only urge Taiwanese to be wary of China's apparent goodwill gesture. They stress that China still has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island.