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 can only dream about, you might ask?
The government of archrival Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, for one, which finds itself tied in knots over the offer. 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 notion impossible for the pro-independence government on the island to accept.
"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% are in favor of accepting the gift.
"We'd love to have them come to Taiwan," said Zhang Hong-yu, a 32-year-old factory worker from Hsinchu, who traveled to see the furry celebrities here in Wolong, a nature reserve and panda research center deep in the bamboo-laden mountains of central Sichuan province. "We don't care about politics. I'd love to jump over the fence and hug them!"
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.
Driving its advantage home, Beijing has turned each step into a media extravaganza, with news about various "trial marriages" between panda candidate pairs and details about their personalities, DNA, hobbies (tree climbing) and, according to state media, the "language lessons" they received in Taiwan's Minnan dialect.
China, a nation that doesn't vote for its leaders, encouraged millions to vote for the pandas, or at least their names, announcing the choice of "Tuan Tuan" and "Yuan Yuan" -- a play on "unify" -- before hundreds of millions of Chinese New Year TV viewers. Chen, whose government is expected to make a decision whether to accept them by early April, quickly suggested they be renamed "independence" and "nation-building."
"Peaceful pandas vs. bellicose Chen," screamed a headline in the China Daily, the English-language Communist Party newspaper distributed in China.
Chinese panda diplomacy dates at least as far back as the Tang Dynasty, when Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) gave a pair to Japan's emperor as a goodwill gift. But it reached its zenith in 1972, when President Nixon made his landmark trip to China, landing a pair of pandas that went a long way toward humanizing the isolated Communist state.
"At the height of Mao's panda diplomacy, they were involved in more foreign peace overtures than [Henry] Kissinger," Frank McNally wrote recently in the Irish Times. In retrospect, he added, perhaps the animals rather than the former secretary of State should have received the controversial 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
Beijing's latest offer of pandas, known as xiongmao or "bearcat" in Chinese, is part of a recent campaign some term "united-front tactics." After years of threatening Taiwan's leadership, lobbing missiles in the island's direction and enshrining into law their willingness to use force against the island to bring it to heel, the Communists made a strategic shift in the spring of 2005 by actively appealing to Taiwanese interest groups and trying to weaken Chen's hand.
Since then, Taiwanese farmers, businesspeople, travel agents and students have been offered market access, reduced tuition on the mainland and other perks. Chen, who seems more comfortable staring down missiles than dealing with "acts of kindness," has often waffled, making him appear flat-footed and churlish at times.
In an attempt to counter Beijing's naming contests and catchy sound bites, the Chen administration has trotted out the 1963 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Any transfer, it argues, must comply with the accord on a "nation to nation" basis.
"China should not be so afraid of the word 'international,' " said Cho Jung-tai, Taiwan's Cabinet spokesman. "Pandas deserve human rights too."
Although the argument has sparked a fresh round of recriminations over whether the pandas would cross national, or provincial, boundaries, it's won Chen few points in the PR arena.