Panda cub debut adds cuddly moment to China-Taiwan ties

Never mind the fact that her parents' names, said together, mean 'reunion.' The senior pandas were China's gift to Taiwan.

Wally Santana / AP
Taiwan's six month-old panda cub Yuan Zai hangs precariously from logs as she is viewed by the public for the first time at the Taipei Zoo in Taipei, Taiwan, on Monday. The panda cub, whose parents were gifts from China to Taiwan in 2008, was unveiled to her adoring public Monday, as hundreds of visitors queued up at the zoo.

China probably wasn’t on the minds of more than 9,500 people who visited the Taipei Zoo for their first look at a giant panda cub this week, but the critter’s popularity still gives a soft touch to tough relations between two old political foes.

The cub named Yuan Zai was born exactly six months ago to two gift pandas from China. Their names said together mean reunion, a hint about what Beijing wants for the two separately ruled sides. Yet the cub’s name comes from the local Taiwanese dialect, a distancing from Beijing, and many people have quit thinking about the older bears’ origin.

“Of course China will be happy about Yuan Zai because it’s the source of the adult pandas,” says Hsu Yung-ming, political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. “But a lot of common people aren’t that clear as to where the cub came from. To them it’s just another phase of entertainment.”

Experts had described the gift pandas as China's ploy to charm the island public toward eventual reunification.

Even if visitors didn’t consider politics while taking a number to file past the zoo enclosure on Monday and exclaim “how cute,” China’s ears should still perk up.

Taiwan owns Yuan Zai, the first cub born locally, but will still consult China in making sure she breeds to raise the endangered world population, says zoo spokesman Chao Ming-chieh. China remains the top breeder of pandas and its bamboo forests are their only natural habitat. About 1,600 live in the wild. 

“We may consult them to consider who Yuan Zai’s future boyfriend will be,” Mr. Chao quips. “Our zoo viewpoint is that Yuan Zai is for both sides of the Strait and the whole world.”

Washington, also a recipient of Beijing’s panda goodwill, will return to China a cub born at the Smithsonian National Zoo so she can reproduce there.

Taipei cub views are also expected to surge later in the month as Taiwan begins its winter school break, giving children a chance to visit the zoo. Monday was the first day Yuan Zai went on display.

China gave the two adult pandas to Taipei’s zoo in 2009, after Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou had laid aside old political disputes a year earlier to build mutual trust and cash in on China’s massive economy. China hopes the two sides reunify, though Mr. Ma has kept Beijing waiting on any political dialogue.

The two sides have been separately ruled since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists. Beijing still claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, angering island leaders and roiling economic relations.

Taipei’s zoo initially kept Yuan Zai away from public viewing to ensure she was healthy. The cub, born through artificial insemination, can now walk, climb and eat with no hitches.

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