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.

Nir Elias/Reuters
Panda-monium: Girls waited to perform in a ceremony in China marking the pandas' delivery.
Chen Xie/Xinhua/AP
Head over heels: Tuan Tuan (l.) and Yuan Yuan played at their home in China in 2006. Tuesday, the couple traveled to Taiwan as gifts from Beijing.
Pichi Chuang/Reuters
Relocating: Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan arrived in Taipei Tuesday and were to be transferred to their new home at the Taipei Zoo.

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.

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.

"Their intentions are clear," says Lai I-chung, with the pro-independence Taiwan Thinktank. "Beijing wants to use [the pandas] to pacify Taiwan. They want to cover up their threatening military posture and create an atmosphere in which the Taiwanese people would like to reunite with China.

Some Chinese netizens had their own concerns about the pandas' fate. "[The] poor pandas will be sent to that dangerous island," wrote one in a chat room on the popular website Tianya. "Are they going to be attacked and poisoned by the mob?

"I beg the DPP [the pro-independence party] not to kill the pandas in four years when they take office. Please send the pandas back home."

Panda propagation

After the panda pair settle into their new home and the initial hype fades, the focus will turn to babymaking. Both pandas are pushing 4-1/2 years old, which experts say equates to roughly 16 in human terms.

That means they're ready for romance, although the ideal age for breeding is 5 to 7 years old, Li Desheng, of the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center, told China's People's Daily newspaper.

But experience at other zoos shows that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "the course of panda love never did run smooth." Pandas are notoriously hard to breed in captivity.

Veterinarian Kanika Mimtragul should know. She's been trying for three years to breed her pandas, Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, at the Chiang Mai Zoo in Thailand.

Females are in heat for only three days each year, usually in February or March, Ms. Mimtragul explained in a phone interview.

They're also extremely picky about their mates, and have been known to attack would-be Casanovas who didn't spark their fancy, panda expert Chen Yucun said on CCTV.

In Chiang Mai, it's the male Chuang Chuang that hasn't been up to the task. The zoo has tried its best to interest him in sex – showing him videos of other giant pandas mating, among other tactics. All to no avail.

"Our male giant panda, he doesn't like mating, I don't know why," Mimtragul says. "I tried to stimulate him in many ways, but he did not respond."

Artificial insemination is tricky, too. The Chiang Mai Zoo tried it after giving up on the natural process. But Mimtragul says they were too late – about 30 hours after ovulation – due to delays waiting for a team of panda reproduction experts to arrive from Bangkok, Thailand, and for hormone test results.

Daily exercise – and extra apples

Mimtragul said the Taipei Zoo may have an easier time of it, since they have no language barriers with Chinese panda-breeding experts.

"My panda has a problem," said Mimtragul. "But maybe in Taipei, they'll be more lucky."

Another good sign: commentators in China claim Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan genuinely like each other.

And according to the English-language China Daily, trainers have taken the pair for daily runs to strengthen their endurance for mating.

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