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Panda diplomacy reaches Canada: what next?

Panda and harper blog
A panda reaches for Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a photo at the Chongqing Zoo in China,  February 2012. Another panda pair got a royal welcome from Harper in Toronto this week. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Diplomacy isn’t exciting. It isn’t cuddly. And it’s very seldom cute.

Except when it involves pandas, the warm and fuzzy currency of China’s international relations.

The recent arrival of Canada's first visiting Chinese pandas in a quarter century was hailed as a sign of warming relations. But oddly enough, Beijing began the practice of loaning out its national animal to favoured nations at a time when the Cold War had chilled relations with the West to the bone.

Even in the tense 1970s, American kiddies thrilled at the sight of the first pandas they’d seen in the flesh – and fur – after a doddering Mao Zedong rewarded Richard Nixon for his historic China trip with Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The popular pair far eclipsed the disgraced Nixon, and were still revered after Mao’s infamous cultural revolution made him a symbol of totalitarian repression.

But now the new China has also managed to turn its adored animals into profit centres, with a $1 million fee for each year they’re abroad going to support conservation efforts.

Is there a lesson here for Canada’s thrifty Harper government?

Maybe. Would kiddies in Beijing like to cuddle with some exported Canadian beavers for the same kind of money? They’re not only fuzzy but diligent, and could earn their keep working on the dam projects that are part of China’s modernization program.

Canada could also follow Beijing’s lead by using the profits to pump up its shrinking environmental protection program, including the Fisheries Act which no longer protects water-borne species. And it could restore the Navigable Waters Protection Act, which now guards only a trickle of our water bodies from the hazards of pipelines and power lines.

Environmental care takes money, so why stop the beaver business at China?  There may be countries all over the world that have a yen for our national beast.

But Ottawa should hurry. With the Experimental Lakes Area that monitors pollutants and acid rain in our water bodies under threat and the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission no longer tracking toxic materials in our waterways, these hardy aquatic animals may soon -- like China's pollution-decimated pandas -- be hard to find.

Olivia Ward  has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia, winning both national and international awards. She has collaborated on two Emmy-winning films based on her work.      



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