Ailing giant panda brought China, Taiwan together

TAIPEI, 11 Nov 2022:

An ailing giant panda at Taipei Zoo has led China and Taiwan to join forces – despite recent heightened tensions.

The two neighbours have come together to cure the animal that was once a symbol of a thaw in relations between them.

Tuan Tuan suffers from brain necrosis, possibly due to a malignant tumour.

In August, he began exhibiting symptoms like walking abnormally and epileptic seizures. A month later, he was diagnosed with the disease that progressed rapidly.

The 18-year-old has exceeded the life expectancy of wild pandas, who live between 15 to 20 years, even as those bred in captivity can live up to 30 years.

Despite an escalation in tensions between Beijing and Taipei since August after a controversial visit to Taiwan by US house speaker Nancy Pelosi, the two sides have put aside their dispute and set to work to help Tuan Tuan.

On Oct 26, the Taipei Zoo announced that panda would move into end-of-life care.

Less than a week later, two experts from the China Conservation and Research Centre arrived in Taipei to work with their Taiwanese colleagues.

The objective was to stabilise Tuan Tuan and reduce his pain and suffering and determine the best course of treatment for him.

A week later, doctors Wu Honglin and Wei Ming returned to mainland China – leaving behind their best wishes for the giant panda and with their mission accomplished.

Tuan Tuan is stable, walking and eating better and is calmer, the Taipei Zoo said.

Due to his age and the advanced stage of the illness, Tuan Tuan will receive end-of-life care jointly decided by the veterinary teams in Taipei and Sichuan and tweaked as the tumour progresses.

Tuan Tuan is a symbol of more harmonious times between the two neighbours, located on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Tuan Tuan and his breeding mate, Yuan Yuan, were gifted to Taiwan in 2005 by then Chinese president Hu Jintao during a brief thaw in ties brought about by the visit to Beijing of Lien Chan, then president of the opposition Kuomintang Party of the self-governing island.

However, the pandas, whose names when combined to read Tuan Yuan, mean “unification” in Mandarin, did not arrive in Taipei until 2008 due to a bureaucratic and political controversy.

The Taiwanese government refused to receive them because China sent them as a domestic transfer between zoos, implying that Taiwan was part of the Asian giant.

China claims sovereignty over the island, which it considers a rebel province since the Kuomintang nationalists withdrew to the island in 1949, after losing the civil war against the communists.

In the end, the matter was resolved by writing “Taipei, Taiwan” and “Chengdu, Sichuan” as the destination and origin of the shipment on the paperwork, without any further details.

The two giant pandas went on to have two offsprings, Yuan Zai and Yuan Bao, born in 2013 and 2020 respectively.

The Chinese veterinarians who travelled to Taipei to treat Tuan Tuan also took the opportunity to examine the other three members of the family and congratulated the Taiwanese zoo for their good condition.

They also promised to return whenever the pandas needed them.

The symbolic thaw between Beijing and Taipei comes in the year marking the 50th anniversary of China’s establishment of “panda diplomacy,” whereby it loans the animals, which are native to the country’s central mountainous regions, to countries worldwide as a goodwill gesture.

The first pair of pandas to travel outside China was a gift to the US following then president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972 to meet Mao Zedong.

Lingling and Xingxing spent nearly three decades at the National Zoo in Washington, where they were welcomed by more than 8,000 people upon their arrival.

Since then, there have always been pandas at the zoo, as part of a bilateral conservation programme, one of the few areas of cooperation that have not been affected in recent times.

Such is the impact of this “soft” diplomacy that a Chinese ambassador to the US went so far as to say there were two Chinese ambassadors in Washington: him, and the panda cub at the National Zoo.