In its latest move to win over Taiwan, the democratic island China claims as its own, Beijing has sent the island a gift for the holidays: pandas. Flying in on a private EVA jet loaded with their favorite snacks bamboo, apples and a special kind of bread the charming ambassadors Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan are arriving at the Taipei Zoo on Dec. 23 just as relations between Taiwan and China are making historical breakthroughs.
Since Ma Ying-jeou took office as Taiwan's new president in May, the two sides have put aside their ongoing sovereignty dispute to forge new economic ties, starting with key transportation links. On Dec.15, Taiwan and China began direct daily flights, shipping and postal links for the first time in 60 years. Previously, planes and ships had to stop over in a third city, adding needless hours to the routes used by some 5 million Taiwanese a year. Now to get from Taipei to Shanghai a trip that used to take over 6 hours is an 80-minute flight.
"The pandas are yet another leg in a series of events that show Beijing has a clear plan to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese," says Professor Lin Chong-Pin of Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies. Lin says that Beijing's disposition towards Taiwan has become more steadfast and confident. No longer does it get irritated by Taiwanese independence voices, such as the mass protests held by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) during a landmark visit by a top Chinese envoy last month. The Chinese official faced the chaos graciously and promised to meet regularly to ink more economic accords. Just last weekend, China offered $19 billion in financing for Taiwanese investors in China.
Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan may symbolize a growing friendship between Taiwan and China, but the gift is not without controversy. Together, their names, chosen by a national online survey in China, mean "reunion" China's longstanding goal with Taiwan, an island that treasures its hard-won democracy. To many, the fact that the pair is a "gift" implies that China considers Taiwan a province, since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species specifies China can only give pandas to domestic zoos. (Foreign zoos can only receive the rare animals on loan; even progeny born on foreign soil eventually goes back to China.) In 2006, during the Chen Shui-bian administration, Taiwan rejected China's offer of the exotic bears.
Ma, however, is not concerned with such technicalities. "I don't think Ma connects pandas with sovereignty," says political scientist Yang Tai-shuenn of Taipei's Chinese Culture University. Ma, rather, is trying to capitalize on the warming ties. "The practical issue is we need closer ties with China to get over this economic crisis," Yang says. "Nobody can deny this." To China's further delight, Ma also recently rejected an overture by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, to visit Taiwan. The Dalai Lama had mentioned he would like to visit Taiwan again next year, but Ma said the timing was not appropriate.
Ma's chumminess with Beijing has been attacked by the opposition DPP, which, as part of its pro-independence platform, is wary of any moves to draw close to China. But the DPP is also preoccupied with internal problems, such as division over their former leader Chen Shui-bian. Former President Chen, his wife, son and daughter-in-law were indicted this month for bribery, embezzlement, forgery and money laundering. As Taiwan's first opposition president who led the island towards greater autonomy, Chen still has loyalists, but others want to keep a distance from his scandals and trial. The Chen scandal has even diverted attention away from the current government's economic troubles. "Ma's lucky," says Yang.
The pandas are another amusement. After their flight, Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan were whisked to the Taipei Zoo with traffic control that eliminated red lights to rest at their $9 million four-story house and playground complete with a pond, waterfall, and walls painted with Sichuan scenery. The four-year-old pandas were shocked by the earthquake in May that damaged their Wolong Nature Reserve, but have since been deemed healthy and, through daily exercises, prepped to produce the ultimate charmer a baby panda.
But even an adorable panda cub would not resolve the issues that divide Taiwan and China. "What would really help is progress on Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization and removing the missiles [aimed at Taiwan]," says Lin. That's what Taiwan really wants for Christmas.