Brace yourself, Canada. You're about to be hugged by the Chinese panda. Two of them, in fact.
In a clear sign that relations between Beijing and Ottawa are as warm as ever despite the chill of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's first three years in office, a pair of giant pandas – the offering that has long been a sign of goodwill in China's international dealings – are destined for the Toronto Zoo. Sources told The Globe and Mail that an announcement will be made next week, during Mr. Harper's five-day, three-city trip to the Middle Kingdom.
"Panda diplomacy" has been used to symbolize China's desire for better ties with foreign powers since the seventh century, when the Tang Dynasty sent a pair of the bamboo-munching bears to Japan. The warm-and-fuzzy tactic was revived by the Communist Party leadership in recent decades, most famously when Mao Zedong gifted Richard Nixon with a pair of pandas for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., after the U.S. President's breakthrough trip to China in 1972.
More recently, pandas have been used as part of an effort to court Taiwan, the island Beijing considers a breakaway province. The symbolism of being sent two pandas in 2008 was confusing for some Taiwanese since the bears – while wildly popular with tourists – are not known for being especially affectionate toward each other. (Pandas are considered an endangered species in large part because they're chronically uninterested in mating).
The expected decision to send pandas to Canada comes as ties between Ottawa and Beijing warm rapidly, particularly on the trade front, where Mr. Harper is expected to embrace China as an alternative market for Canadian energy following U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to delay approval for the Keystone XL pipeline that would have shipped Alberta bitumen south. Now it may go west instead via the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast.
It's a prospect that the Chinese leadership welcomes, one that has made it easy to forget the acrimony of Mr. Harper's early days in office, when he aggravated Beijing by awarding honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama and boycotting the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Critics, meanwhile, accuse Canada of abandoning its principled stance on human rights in China in favour of a better trade relationship.
Canada has never before received panda diplomats, though not for lack of effort. Pierre Trudeau, who made his inaugural trip to Beijing a year after Mr. Nixon, badly wanted to bring home a pair of the bears to show his trip had been a success. Mr. Trudeau went so as far as to deliver a quartet of Canadian beavers to China in hopes of provoking an exchange that never happened.
"We cast our beaver upon Pacific waters and they failed to come back as panda," recalled Brian Evans, a sinologist at the University of Alberta who was briefly made a "beaver liaison officer" for the 1973 trip, tasked with ensuring the national symbols were delivered alive and well to China's then-premier Zhou Enlai.
And it may yet be unwise to start dreaming up names for the Toronto Zoo's panda tandem until they clear immigration. As recently as 2010, then-environment-minister Jim Prentice told reporters during a visit to Beijing that he had secured a pair of pandas for delivery in 2011. "It's very exciting," he said at the time. "Everybody loves the pandas."
Nothing came of that, but this time the signals are even stronger that panda diplomacy is finally under way. Mr. Harper will visit the southwestern city of Chongqing on the final day of his China trip, a stop that will include a photo opportunity in the Panda Room of the Chongqing Zoo.
Charles Burton, a China expert at Brock University who was invited to join the Prime Minister's trip next week and is familiar with the itinerary, said the trip to Chongqing was planned specifically so that Mr. Harper could make the announcement about receiving the pandas. "This comes after a long period of the [Toronto]zoo people courting the panda people [in China] They're just ecstatic about this," he said. "I don't get it."
Other sources confirmed that a deal to send pandas to Canada will be announced while Mr. Harper is in China.
Mr. Burton, who says he's no longer excited by the spotted bears after seeing "mangy street pandas performing on the streets of Shanghai" years ago, says China's decision to send two pandas to Canada is nonetheless symbolic. "They do seem to ration them out with some view to making a statement about relations," he said. "We've been trying to get a panda for a long time."
Giant pandas are unique to southwest China, and only about 1,600 of them are known to be living in the wild. The majority are in Sichuan province, a region that borders Chongqing.
Unlike Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing, the two pandas given to Mr. Nixon following his 1972 visit, Canada's pandas are likely to be less gifts than rentals. In recent years, China has started charging fees of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the pandas it sends abroad, with the money going to fund panda conservation research in China. (Another stipulation is that any panda cubs born abroad – should the furry pawed diplomats get uncharacteristically frisky in their new homes – be repatriated to China.)
Under the plan Mr. Prentice laid out in 2010, the pandas would have moved around the country, spending 18 months to two years at zoos in Toronto, Calgary and Granby, Que. It's unclear where the pandas Mr. Harper is bringing over will live, although the Toronto Zoo is already making preparations.
Zhang Mingda, a panda specialist at the Toronto Zoo, told the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper that his team is already getting set to receive the pandas. The only thing they're waiting for now is the official announcement, he said. "It's all ready except for the east wind."