Taiwan Embraces China's Gift Of 2 Pandas

Gu Gu in a picture taken in 2006
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TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Two giant pandas from China captivated thousands of Taiwanese on Monday, but the playful bears failed to completely disarm spectators from the rival island.

China presented the 4-year-old pandas to mark warming ties between the mainland and the island, which split amid civil war in 1949, although opposition politicians and other Taiwanese skeptics have denounced the gift as propaganda. China named the animals Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, which together means "reunion."

The pair - a male and a female - from China's southern province of Sichuan emerged from a month of quarantine Monday, the first day of the lunar Chinese New Year. Visitors to the Taipei Zoo waited in long lines before catching a glimpse of the pandas munching on bamboo and rolling around in their cage as they pawed each other. Zoo officials said more than 20,000 came to see the pandas.

Many spectators shrugged off suggestions by Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party that China could use the pandas to advance its unification agenda.

"Tensions have indeed eased," said high school teacher Pan Wen-liang. "But we are the ones to determine on our own future, and no charm offensives could sway us."

Businessman Chang Chang-chun welcomed the easing of hostilities with China as he took his two children to the panda house.

"Now the Chinese are sending pandas rather than repeating their military threats against us, and that's a welcome sign," he said. "Unification does not look entirely impossible, but it would still take a long, long time."

Most Taiwanese cherish their freewheeling democracy and are reluctant to unite with the authoritarian China.

China initially offered the pandas in 2005, but the pro-independence DPP government rejected the gift. After Ma Ying-jeou of the rival Nationalist Party was inaugurated in May, he accepted the offer.

Ma has moved aggressively to improve relations with China. The two sides ended a six-decade ban last December to launch direct air and shipping links across the Taiwan Strait.

On Saturday, Ma dismissed opposition charges that accepting the animals could undermine Taiwan's sovereignty.

"Before these lovely pandas, we should show more humanity and less politics," Ma said.

Ma's Nationalists favor vigorous economic and political engagement with Beijing, but Ma himself has said repeatedly he will not discuss unification during his time in office.

The giant panda is unique to China and serves as an unofficial national mascot. China regularly sends the animals abroad as a sign of warm diplomatic relations or to mark breakthroughs in ties.

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