Why this Taiwan panda needed a 'proof of life' photo

Panda politics: The Taipei Zoo moves to debunk rumors that a prized panda recently died. 

(Taipei Zoo via AP)
On May 18, this 11-year-old panda from China named Tuan Tuan is seen sitting upright his cage behind recent local newspaper front pages at the Taipei Zoo, in Taipei, Taiwan. Chinese websites reported the panda had died.

The subject of the photo looks out from behind bars, with newspapers arranged in front of him to prove what day it is. This "proof of life" shot is not a scene from a kidnapping but an effort by the Taipei Zoo to debunk rumors that a prized panda recently died.

Photos released by the zoo this week show 11-year-old Tuan Tuan looking at the papers laid out in front of his inner enclosure. The zoo's director said in a statement that Tuan Tuan, his partner Yuan Yuan and their cub Tuan Zai are all fine.

"We welcome everyone to visit them at the zoo," said Director Chin Shih-chien said.

The website of China's official Communist Party newspaper Global Times had reported the panda died of canine distemper, sending the story racing across the Chinese-language Internet. The paper later retracted the story and apologized for not checking its facts, a potentially egregious error given the political sensitivity surrounding the panda pair.

Giant pandas exist only in China and Beijing has often used overseas gifts of the animals to make political statements about its relationship with other governments. Beijing claims the self-governing island of Taiwan as its own territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary.

Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose combined names translate as "Reunion," were sent by Beijing to Taiwan in December 2008 following the election of China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou as the island's leader.

The rumors of Tuan Tuan's death came just days before the inauguration of Ma's successor, Tsai Ing-wen, whose party formally supports Taiwan's formal independence from China.

Last month, the Chinese government persuaded Kenya to deport 45 Taiwanese citizens to Beijing recently as part of a fraud investigation. Many in Taipei accused China of kidnapping.

But the controversial expulsions are a veiled warning as to how the mainland is ready to treat Taiwan under its next president, Tsai Ing-wen, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

If she abandons the current government’s Beijing-friendly policies and insists on maintaining a cautious distance from China, as she has pledged to do.

Political experts see the deportations as another signal of Beijing’s intentions, following cuts in the number of permits issued to Taiwan-bound tourists from the mainland and a suspension of fish imports. Some expect more forceful actions if President-elect Tsai snubs China after taking office May 20.

“These are subtle messages without an official overt condemnation or a harshly-worded warning toward the administration to be inaugurated,” says Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan. “These are like a velvet glove with an iron fist in it."

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