China using pandas in battle for hearts and minds of Taiwan

March 22, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WOLONG NATURE RESERVE, China -- Taiwan and China quibble about everything from diplomatic slights and hidden meanings to ancient history and obscure definitions. So perhaps it's not surprising that they'd argue over two chubby animals that bite each other's ears and have trouble procreating.

China's latest weapon in its increasingly effective charm offensive against Taiwan is an offer of giant pandas. Who would think of turning down two lovable animals that zoos around the world could only dream about?

The government of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, for one. Let one panda's nose in the tent, Chen and his allies fear, and you buy into Beijing's claim that Taiwan is part of China, a pill impossible to swallow for the pro-independence government on the island.

"The pandas are a trick, just like the Trojan horse," said lawmaker Huang Shi-cho of the Taiwan Solidarity Union party. "Pandas are cute, but they are meant to destroy Taiwan's psychological defenses."

Unfortunately for the Chen camp, most Taiwanese appear happy to have their psychological defenses destroyed by an animal that has melted hearts for centuries. One poll found that more than 70 percent are in favor of accepting the gift.

China has played its hand masterfully, seizing the public relations advantage at every turn with a deftness that would put Madison Avenue to shame. It announced the offer during a visit to China last year by a pro-Beijing Taiwanese opposition leader, a historic rapprochement that already had Chen reeling.

Beijing has turned each step into a media extravaganza, with news about "trial marriages" between panda candidate pairs and details about their personalities, DNA, hobbies and, according to state media, the "language lessons" they received in Taiwan's Minnan dialect.

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