The Chinese are doing their panda thing again, buying international goodwill by depositing one of these doomed and slightly sinister creatures with any country which might otherwise have an objection to their foreign or domestic policy. Worried about human rights and prisoners of conscience? ‘Ere you go, mate, have a panda and shut your gob. Top-quality panda this is, ten years old, one previous owner, runs on bamboo, very eco-friendly. Shove it in a zoo and watch the kiddies pour in. We do a sideline in panda mugs and panda toys — all manufactured by kiddies, as it happens — and we’ll bung you some of them too for a pony.’
It usually works, the so-called panda diplomacy, no matter how many people the Chinese government might be arresting or shooting at any particular moment. It worked a treat, for example, on Edward Heath — who perhaps felt a certain concord with a baleful, solitary and endangered creature incapable of sexual intercourse. The Chinese bunged him Chia Chia and Ching Ching after he’d been on a state visit in 1974 and for a while news reporters and the Blue Peter crew were camped outside their cages at London Zoo, anticipating frenzied sexual activities and the birth of a likkle baby panda cub.
But pandas, by and large, do not mate, which is the principal reason they are so endangered. Apparently only 40 per cent of male pandas ever exhibit any form of sexual desire — a bit like Ukrainians. And those are figures culled from wild pandas (please don’t ask me how); the libido of captive male pandas is still more stunted and forlorn, registering somewhere in the region of 82 per cent who feel themselves, perhaps for progressive social reasons, alienated from the coercive act of sex. Chia Chia, to use the somewhat coarse and juvenile demotic, did not even get his tops. Or Ching Ching, whichever was the male. He just sat there, chewing bamboo and occasionally farting. And here was a salutary lesson: like political careers, all pandas end in failure, as Sir Edward would no doubt concur, were he not now also extinct.
Back then, in 1974, we were bought off with two pandas, rather than just the one, and if the female panda had given birth we would have been allowed to keep the issue. On the first point, it is pleasing to see that we are still regarded as an important country, so far as the Chinese are concerned. Our deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has signed some sort of trade deal with the Chinese worth about three billion quid and received a couple of pandas into the bargain. The really big-player countries still get two pandas for turning a blind eye to China’s repulsive record on human rights and democracy, but no-account countries like Austria get just one, and then only on a short lease.
However, despite the Chinese giving us two pandas, we will not be allowed to keep the offspring in the highly unlikely event that the creatures deign to mate. These days they demand the immediate return of any panda offspring, under a contract drawn up when the pandas are handed over. That’s what they do, the Chinese; insist that the panda cubs are flown back to Beijing where they are put to work assembling plastic toys, or perhaps incarcerated and water-boarded for having confessed to bourgeois thoughts. They are extremely valuable, pandas, being one of the few animals the Chinese do not grind up into a powder and sprinkle on their genitals. However this is probably immaterial, as Sweetie and Sunshine — those are their singularly inappropriate names — are even less likely to have sex in the next ten years than I am. They will just sit there, looking morose.
One interesting point is that the Chinese politician who hands over the pandas is always subjected to a form of reverse-anthropomorphism from the media. This was true of the deranged psychopath Mao Zedong in 1974 and it is true, today, of the bespectacled Stalinist Le Keqiang, who was involved in the negotiations with Nick Clegg. For a while these authoritarian careerist ideologues take on a panda’s characteristics and are portrayed as being cuddly and loveable by the western media, so long as they have a panda to give us. Keqiang, for example, is ‘almost liberal’ and was ‘friends with some of the Tiananmen Square protesters’, if we are to believe British newspaper reports. He is still, however, committed to perpetual one-party rule in China and so that ‘almost’ which pertained to his alleged liberal sympathies must be a big one.
There are not many pandas left in the wild; the wild is not a very good place for them these days, seeing as there’s so little of it left. It is a creature which, as we have noted, feels disinclined to mate and furthermore has, as its chosen diet, bamboo — a substance nearly entirely devoid of nutrition, so the beast has to eat almost continually. It is thought that we have a fondness for them because they look a little like Ed Miliband, with that black ring around their eyes — or, more likely, because they resemble toddlers with their large heads and chubby bodies and ungainly movements. I do not think they are long for this world, the pandas, and a large number of conservationists argue that we would be better off attempting to conserve creatures which have at least a fighting chance of survival, rather than these counter-Darwinian anomalies clinging on in the Sichuan mountains. And indeed, at Edinburgh Zoo.