Chinese panda loan to France kept top secret

As world leaders held frenzied talks to try to save the crisis-hit eurozone in the south of France earlier this month, the fate of two giant pandas destined for a French zoo hung in the balance.

Chinese panda loan to France kept top secret
Chi King

Negotiations had been conducted at the highest level of government in Beijing and Paris, and the deal was to have been announced at the G20 summit in the French resort of Cannes, before it was delayed by more pressing matters.

Details of the deal — including the identity and age of the two pandas — will remain a secret until Chinese President Hu Jintao gives his approval, an indication of how seriously China takes its famous panda diplomacy.

For now, the two fluffy bears at the heart of the high-level political drama are happily crunching on bamboo at a breeding centre in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where they will be kept in isolation for three months.

There, they will spend their days munching through 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of bamboo — collected from nearby mountains every day and then washed — and producing 30 kilograms of excrement.

Li Mingxi is director of the centre, where 108 pandas aged from a few months to 27 years old live in grassy enclosures where they climb trees, eat and sleep.

He said he knew little about the pandas destined for France, describing it as an “affair at the state level”, although he did reveal that the animals receive “special treatment” before going overseas.

The pair will be the first pandas sent to France since the death of Yen Yen in 2000, who was given to the country’s former president Georges Pompidou in the 1970s along with another panda, who died shortly after arriving.

In those days, the animals were given away under Beijing’s famous “panda diplomacy”. Now, zoos have to pay large sums of money to acquire the pandas — and even then, they are only on loan.

It is not clear how much the pandas destined for the Beauval zoo in central France will cost, but Scotland will reportedly pay around $1 million a year to Chinese authorities for two pandas destined for Edinburgh Zoo.

China has loaned dozens of pandas to other countries in recent decades including the United States, Thailand, Singapore, Spain, Austria and Japan.

Despite the high cost, they are highly sought after for the publicity they bring to zoos. A giant panda cub at the Chiang Mai zoo in northern Thailand had millions of fans and her own live 24-hour reality television series.

The pandas heading to France will be accompanied by at least two Chinese “experts and medical staff” who will be replaced every six months, Li said.

Pandas are encouraged to breed during their maximum 10-year stay abroad, and any offspring eventually return to China, where just 1,600 of the endangered animals remain in the wild, with some 300 others in captivity.

If they refuse to “have sexual intercourse naturally” — a common problem with pandas, which are well-known for their poor breeding abilities — the keepers will use artificial insemination, said Li.

“In terms of breeding, the most important thing is that they love each other,” said Li.

“It’s the same for people — you may love someone but he or she doesn’t love you.”

Given the lengthy negotiations and hefty price tag, Beauval zoo will be hoping the cute and cuddly bears — which weigh as much as 150 kilograms each — will be a major draw for visitors.

“The reception centre is built. The Chinese have visited it and from what I heard, they said it was the most beautiful reception area they had seen outside of Chengdu,” French Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told AFP earlier this month.

“The panda is such a symbolic animal that such loan agreements require agreement from the highest level in China. That’s why it still lacks the final approval.”

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Xi arrives on French Riviera as Macron seeks united EU front on China

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Monaco on the French Riviera Sunday seeking to press ambitious commercial goals ahead of talks with France's Emmanuel Macron who is trying to forge a united European front to contend with Beijing's advances.

Xi arrives on French Riviera as Macron seeks united EU front on China
Chinese President Xi Jinping, his wife Peng Liyuan, Princess Charlene of Monaco and Prince Albert II of Monaco, stand in front of troops at the Monaco Palace. Photo: AFP

Xi arrived at the airport of the resort city of Nice accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan to be welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and an guard of honour.

Prior to meeting with Macron, Xi went to the nearby principality of Monaco, where he was received by Prince Albert II and where a government spokesman said bilateral talks would “address economic and environmental issues”.

Xi, who has made establishing China as a global player central to his government, travelled from Italy, whose government became the first G7 state to sign up to his landmark new “Silk Road” infrastructure project, a massive undertaking to join Asia to Europe.

Washington and some EU states fear the huge project will give China too much sway. But Xi says it would be a two-way street of investment and trade.

Germany criticised Rome over its participation in the new Silk Road project.

“In a world with giants like China, Russia or our partners in the United States, we can only survive if we are united as the EU. And if some countries believe that they can do clever business with the Chinese, then they will be surprised when they wake up and find themselves dependant,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

The EU's German budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger, told the Funke newspaper group that Europe should ensure it retains its autonomy and sovereignty when dealing with China.

He expressed concern that already “infrastructure of strategic importance … are no longer in European but in Chinese hands.”

French Finance Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had remarked Friday that “Silk
Road cooperation had to go “in both directions.”

Amid tight security, Xi and his wife were Sunday evening to join Macron and his wife for a private dinner at nearby Beaulieu-sur-Mer overlooking the Mediterranean during which they would have what a Chinese official termed “a deep exchange of views on Sino-French, Sino-European relations and international and issues of mutual interest.”

Xi's official visit to Paris on Monday will mark 55 years since Charles de Gaulle established diplomatic relations with Beijing.

A series of cooperation deals on nuclear power, aerospace and clean energy initiatives, some involving lucrative contracts, are expected to be signed.

On Tuesday, Macron and Xi will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to explore “points of convergence” ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels next month.

As well as addressing commercial cooperation and strategic issues with Xi, Macron has also been urged to deal with the case of Chinese former Interpol head Meng Hongwei.

Meng's wife has had no news of her husband since his arrest in China nearly six months ago and it emerged Sunday she has written to Marcon asking him to bring up his disappearance with Xi.

He is believed to be facing corruption charges.

But Xi's visit poses a particular challenge for Macron, who wants to deepen EU ties with China while also pushing back against Beijing's growing global clout.

Europe's distrust of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which is poised to become the dominant player in next-generation 5G mobile technology worldwide, is emblematic of the increasingly rocky relationship.

Monaco, which notably is eyeing a share of Chinese luxury tourism and has its own foreign policy, only last year signed an accord with Huawei to make the principality the first country entirely covered by the company's 5G mobile network by year end.

Macron has lauded the EU's “awakening” to the challenges posed by China, which the bloc now labels a “rival” despite being Europe's biggest trading partner.

“The reality is that the world has changed significantly — China is not the country it once was, and we are dealing with a very major partner,” a Macron aide said ahead of Xi's visit.

The US is pressuring European allies to not use the Huawei technology, saying it creates a security risk by potentially letting Beijing snoop on sensitive communications.

But France has not ruled out using Huawei gear.

Beijing has accused Washington of trying to escalate President Donald Trump's trade battle with China.

Despite the many sources of friction, France wants to engage China as a closer partner as Washington makes a pointed withdrawal from global affairs under Trump's “America First” policy.

For example, Macron may seek more Chinese support of the French-backed G5 Sahel force fighting Islamist extremists in Western Africa.

China has been investing heavily in a diplomatic offensive across Africa, promising to help build infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road initiative.

Aides say Macron will press Xi to ensure such projects are fair and explore the participation of French companies amid allegations the deals could load African countries with unsustainable debt. 

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