China’s proposed loan of two pandas to Singapore has turned out to be quite a diplomatic coup for them — and probably a commercial coup for the Singapore Zoo. It has made it to the headlines in local media, invited a letter to the press from a Singaporean gushing over the communist state’s gesture, and one local was quoted in the papers as saying that her “liking for China definitely went up a few notches”.
While I agree that this was a nice gesture by the Chinese government and speaks well of the state of bilateral ties, it would also be prudent not to get completely bowled over by this.
To most people, pandas are very docile and cute. As one netizen wrote, the fact that it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, as opposed to hunting, adds to its image of innocence. Although giant pandas are often assumed to be harmless because of their apparent cuddly appearance, they have been known to attack humans, usually out of irritation rather than predatory behaviour. Like most animals, female pandas are also very territorial.
It’s interesting that the behaviour of pandas quite accurately mimics the government of their country of origin. China is ostensibly opposed to colonialism and interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, but hypersensitive and emotional when provoked — think Taiwan and the Yasukuni Shrine visits. They claim to be undergoing a “peaceful rise”, but have thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan, which they have promised to reclaim eventually, by force if necessary.
China has also used its panda diplomacy to send a message to other countries. Late last year, China gave a pair of pandas to Taiwan and named them Tuan Tuan (团团) and Yuan Yuan (圆圆) — meaning “reunion” — in obvious reference to their desire to reunify Taiwan with the mainland.
It remains to be seen what China will name the pandas that they loan to Singapore. Perhaps Xiong Xiong (兄兄) and Di Di (弟弟) — “brothers” in Chinese — to stir up ethnic (or ethnocentric) sentiments of Chinese Singaporeans?