Tuan Tuan (團團), a widely loved 18-year-old male giant panda at Taipei Zoo, died on Saturday afternoon last week, and his death has sparked discussion surrounding political ideology, and life and death education.
The panda began having seizures from a brain lesion in August and was moved into palliative care last month, but after a series of seizures in the early hours of Saturday last week, he was given a deep anesthetic for a computerized tomography scan, the results of which led the medical team to believe his condition was irreversible and he could no longer live without struggle. The zoo therefore let Tuan Tuan “continue to sleep.”
China gifted Tuan Tuan and a female panda named Yuan Yuan (圓圓) — whose names together mean “reunion” in Chinese — in 2008 to mark increasingly close relations to Taiwan, shortly after Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) became president.
Many Taiwanese objected, saying that “the gift” implied that Taiwan is part of China, and that the pandas represented a “domestic transfer” — China stopped its “panda diplomacy” in 1984 and has since rented its pandas to international zoos at high prices.
With two cubs born in 2013 and 2020, the panda family of four won the hearts of Taiwanese young and old with their cute and cuddly appearances, making them a star attraction of the zoo. Tuan Tuan’s death was therefore mourned by many.
However, a few individuals used the incident for political means. Broadcasting Corp of China chairman Jaw Shaw-kong (趙少康) on Sunday last week called President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) “cold-blooded,” and “pathetic and terrifying,” saying that she was “drowning humanity in ideology” because she did not publicly mourn Tuan Tuan’s death, whereas she had tweeted her condolences to US President Joe Biden when his dog Champ died last year.
Ma on Monday said the panda couple had “contributed significantly to the improvement of cross-strait relations,” and although he hopes there would be more action to “draw people on both sides of the strait closer,” he doubts that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had the wisdom to achieve it. He also said that Tsai was “strange,” and had “gone too far” when she expressed condolences to Champ, but not to Tuan Tuan.
Hu Xijin (胡錫進), a former editor-in-chief at China’s state-run Global Times, also weighed in, tweeting on Tuesday that Tsai’s silence about Tuan Tuan’s death would mean “many Taiwan people are ashamed of this ‘president.’”
Their remarks are apparently meant to instigate hatred against Tsai and the DPP, and stir up Beijing-friendly and anti-US sentiment for political gain, as no mention was made of the pair of Formosan sika deer and the pair of Formosan serows gifted to China in 2011 in return for the pandas, and that a serow died of cardiopulmonary failure in 2013.
It is tragic that pandas, one of the world’s most vulnerable species, are being used by China as diplomatic tools — China resumed its panda diplomacy last month by gifting a pair of pandas to Qatar before the FIFA World Cup. That Tuan Tuan’s death is being used by some people in Taiwan to incite hatred adds to the tragedy, when it could be an opportunity to educate about life and death.
As the symbolism of the gifted pandas was short-lived, China’s cognitive warfare against Taiwan continues. However, Tuan Tuan’s contribution to Taiwan should leave joyful memories, and should stimulate meaningful discussions about wildlife conservation, veterinary medicine, and about life and death.
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