Thursday June 14, 2012
Pandas to soothe the nerves
COMMENT BY BARADAN KUPPUSAMY
As Malaysia rolls out the red carpet for the pandas, it is hoped that China’s panda diplomacy can also help ease political tension in the country.
ANYTHING about the Giant Pandas are a big hit and when it was announced by our Natural Resources and Environment Ministry on Monday that China had decided to loan two endangered baby pandas for a 10-year period, it made instant world news.
Pandas, from the bear family, are about the most easily recognised and loved animals in the world.
They evoke excitement from viewers who line up for hours outside the zoos from London to New York, Tokyo and Singapore, to get a glimpse of these furry and cuddly animals.
The baby pandas, about a year to three years old, are part of the loan system China has worked out since the early 1980s after concerns were raised over their loss of habitat, endangered status and the difficulty of breeding in captivity.
They are only loaned to countries that China has established strong and friendly relationship with or those that figure very highly on the list of countries deemed important to China.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had made the request when he met his counterpart Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in April when the two leaders opened the joint Malaysia China industrial park in Chengdu, Nanning.
The loan of the pandas, estimated to number about 1,600 in the wild and 268 in captivity, is an important gesture from China to Malaysia as well as commemorating the strong diplomatic ties between the two countries.
It is also to commemorate 40 years of relationship between China and Malaysia.
The political overtones are unmistakable.
Najib’s father Tun Abdul Razak made a path-breaking visit to communist China in 1974, shook hands with Mao Zedong and returned to call a snap election which the enlarged, new coalition Barisan Nasional won handsomely.
It was the first election after the May 13 riots in 1969 and the alienated Chinese community had backed Razak in the hope that the new Barisan Nasional he headed would usher in a new era in politics.
Forty years later, Najib is not hoping to win over the Chinese voters – most of whom are backing his political opponent Pakatan Rakyat – with his “panda diplomacy” with China but the successful arrival of the furry creatures is expected to definitively lighten the divisive atmosphere in the country.
Overall, Najib’s engagement with China and the continuing importance he is giving to China in trade, cultural and education matters will have a desirable effect on voters, including Chinese voters.
Having said that, pandas have always figured importantly in China’s diplomatic efforts.
The practice reportedly existed as far back as the Tang Dynasty when Empress Wu Zetian (625–705) sent a pair of pandas to the Japanese emperor but in modern times, “panda diplomacy” really took off after US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
China gifted two pandas – Ling Ling and Xing Xing – following that visit and the pandas generated world headlines and a mad craze in America.
Millions of people lined up to see them in Washington and in one stroke, China scored an instant diplomatic victory.
Japan reportedly dispatched two military aircraft to guard “Lan Lan” and “Kang Kang” when they entered its airspace on arrival from China as part of the now fine-tuned “panda diplomacy”.
West Germany rolled out the red carpet for its pair of pandas in 1974.
In the years since, the rare pandas have become firmly established as an important piece of China’s modern day diplomacy – to break the ice, ease tension and promote goodwill.
But it is not all diplomacy with pandas.
They have to be kept in special enclosures being built at the wetlands park in Putrajaya.
Pandas do nothing but laze around and eat special bamboos shoots (about 20kg a day) – their favourite and only food, which has to be imported from China or specially planted here.
They have to be kept in special, fully air-conditioned enclosure with climate controlled at temperatures ranging between 18°C and 22°C and humidity controlled at 50% to 60% all year round.
Ambient conditions have to be adjusted to simulate the four seasons similar to their natural habitat in south-western China.
According to one estimate, the cost can run up to RM20mil but the returns in the form of gate collection, research and diplomacy, far outweighs the cost.
The reverse is also true. Any mishap will spark a diplomatic uproar and ruin relations as well.
On arrival, the pandas will be quarantined for a month and five more months for acclimatisation before they are opened for public viewing.
Malaysia, the third country in South-East Asia after Thailand and Singapore to get the pandas, will also get the chance to name the pandas in a nationwide contest.
Hopefully, the arrival of the pandas, celebrated for breaking the ice between nations and exciting people, will also ease the tensions and divide in our nation.