It’s all black and white: The giant panda loan deal with China — Chet Chin
AUG 20 — Giant pandas are black and white. So, too, is the giant panda loan agreement that Malaysia signed with China on June 15, 2012. There are various reasons (good and bad) why the agreement shouldn’t have been signed but the fact remains — it has been signed, and witnessed at the highest level by our own prime minister and a member of the permanent committee of the Communist Party of China’s Central Political Bureau (CPC) Committee. There is no backing out of it. Instead of criticising and complaining, let’s make the best of it and do what we can to make the chosen pair welcome when they eventually arrive.
My friends are very excited for me that there will be a pair of giant pandas coming to live in Malaysia for 10 years. They know how crazy I am about these black-and-white furries, and how I’ve been travelling to China every year since 2007 to see them.
They tell me that soon the pandas will be nearer so that I won’t have to go so far to see them. But I haven’t been going to China just to “see” giant pandas; I’ve been a panda volunteer since 2007, first at Wolong Panda Centre (before it was extensively damaged by the 2008 earthquake) and then at Bifengxia Panda Base after the majority of the Wolong pandas were transferred there.
My black-and-white love affair began at the turn of the millennium when I watched a documentary about Wolong on Animal Planet, read an article about Dr Pan Wenshi and his work with wild giant pandas in The Reader’s Digest, and discovered Hua Mei, the first giant panda cub to be born and to survive in the Western Hemisphere, on a panda webcam set up by the San Diego Zoo, where she was born on August 21, 1999.
After watching the Wolong documentary, I made up my mind to visit the place some day. This came true in September 2007. The moment I stepped in, I felt like I had arrived home. There and then I promised to return every year. When Wolong was extensively damaged by the 2008 earthquake, I “followed” the pandas to Bifengxia Panda Base in August 2008, and have been going there every year since. My most recent trip was last May.
Malaysia’s giant panda loan agreement with China is not our country’s first attempt to join the likes of the United States, Japan, Austria, Spain, Thailand, Australia, Scotland, France, and soon Singapore, to host a pair of giant pandas.
I remember I’d just returned from my 2009 volunteer trip when I read in the newspapers that Malaysia was planning to get a giant panda from China. The article stuck in my mind (although I didn’t save a copy for reference — my mistake) for what the minister (I can’t remember who) said about making sure that the giant panda does not die on its way here.
I remember thinking “panda not here yet, already thinking like that”. That attempt was very preliminary as the ministry apparently wanted only one giant panda, not knowing that such a loan agreement always involves a pair. It sounded like it was just talk, with no application for the loan.
The giant panda loan attempt resurfaced in 2011, and again early this year. This year’s attempt seemed more definite, so much so that when I was in Bifengxia in May, I tried to find out how advanced the negotiations were. I was told the agreement was awaiting government approval. I forgot to ask which government.
And then, in early June, there was an announcement that the giant panda loan agreement between China and Malaysia would be signed on June 15, 2012. True enough, on that date, Malaysia made black-and-white history to host a pair of giant pandas for 10 years to commemorate the 40th anniversary (1974-2014) of its diplomatic relations with China.
Since its signing, there have been news articles lauding and lambasting the loan agreement. According to those in favour, the agreement shows how highly China regards Malaysia. According to those not in favour, Malaysia is criticised for overlooking our own endangered animals.
Many are also appalled by the amount to be spent on the 10-year loan agreement, a figure that has been reported at RM20 million but is actually higher, considering it costs US$1 million a year for the actual loan, while there will be other costs for the building of a suitable habitat for the chosen pair.
Am I happy Malaysia has joined the special group of giant panda “host” countries? Actually, we haven’t joined yet; we are a giant panda “host” country-designate, our membership to be confirmed on the day the chosen pair arrives. But I digress ...
I have mixed feelings about having giant pandas in Malaysia, and I am more worried than I am happy about it. That 2009 news report about making sure that the giant panda doesn’t die on its way here has stuck in my head; if an official representative of our country can think like that, what hope is there that the giant pandas will have a good 10 years with us?
But there is hope — much hope, and positive hope, too — now that the agreement is in black and white and not just wishful thinking. Because whatever we do for our “Malaysian” giant pandas — from the building of their new home to their arrival to their quarantine period to their settling in, et al — will be in the international limelight.
Giant pandas have been called goodwill ambassadors, but more than that, they are much loved and treasured by the Chinese people. It’s a heavy responsibility to host a pair in Malaysia, and it’s a responsibility that I am sure our country will do its best to fulfil. After all, it is just like looking after a good friend’s children while they’re on holiday here.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.