China's Panda Diplomacy

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Kyodo / Landov

Ling Ling, a male giant panda, at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo.

Modern China and Japan have never been close. There's just been too much history between the two countries. But ties have improved lately and Beijing's Olympic torch made its tour of Nagano City without much incident last week (unlike a later, tumultuous journey through South Korea). But now, just as Tokyo is about to welcome Chinese President Hu Jintao on a relatively extended state visit, a strange omen has occured: Ling Ling, the only panda that China has given rather than loaned to Japan, has died.

Japan is in mourning over the 16-year resident and superstar of Tokyo's Ueno Zoo. Ling Ling died overnight of heart failure and kidney malfunction. His portrait now sits inside his cage, next to bouquets and his favorite bamboo shoots. Some visitors wept; others prayed and wrote notes to his memory. In 1992, Ling Ling was part of a bilateral trade agreement of sorts: the Chinese gave Tokyo a giant black-and-white panda — native to its southwest — in exchange for a panda the Japanese had bred in captivity. China has since stopped giving pandas away as part of its diplomatic policy and has also suspended its lucrative "loans" of the animals to zoos around the world because of the species' increasing endangered status. (Most recently, a pair was offered to Taiwan — considered a domestic transfer by China — but the couple was refused by Taipei.)

The news is that Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda may ask Hu for a new panda. (Japan has eight pandas on loan from China.) The sad passing of Ling Ling could thus become an opportunity for the Chinese President to dramatically improve ties between Tokyo and Beijing. He is already getting the full VIP treatment during his May 6 to 10 tour. Hu will meet with Fukuda, then with the Emperor and Empress, and visit Yokohama's Chinatown as well as the historic city of Nara and the financial center of Osaka. Symbolically, it is already an important trip: it is Hu's first overseas trip since the 17th National Congress confirmed him as President last October. A giant panda would be the perfect diplomatic exclamation point to the visit. Or so the Japanese hope. Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said that he supports the request for pandas for the Ueno Zoo. Said he, "They're cute."

If the Japanese do get a new panda of their own, they can only hope the animal will be more fruitful than Ling Ling. With a name meaning "darling little girl" in Chinese, Ling Ling, a male, was probably confused. He had no luck mating with female giant pandas. His potential mate in Ueno, Tong Tong, died in 2000, without issue. Playdates with pandas in Mexico were also unsuccessful. At the end, he probably just stopped trying. Ling Ling was 22 when he died — roughly equivalent to 70 human years.