Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Critters as Cultural Property: Panda Cub to be Repatriated to China in Early 2010

Washington D.C.'s beloved panda cub, Tai Shan, may have been born in the USA, but under a contract, he belongs to China, and he will be going home to a land he has never seen sometime early in 2010. See http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/2009/12/tai-shan-will-return-to-china/

In the old days, Communist China gave pandas to zoos around the world as diplomatic gifts. Now, in capitalist-Communist China, cash is king and they are rented for substantial amounts of money. After the Smithsonian zoo's original gifted panda pair died of old age, the beloved pandas could only be replaced with rentals at the cost of some $25 million. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/06/AR2005080601118.html.

One of the other downsides of this arrangement is that when Tai Shan was born, the Smithsonian had to pay the Chinese $600,000, but the Smithsonian did not receive any rights to keep him. Hence, Tai Shan is being repatriated. And if a new deal is not worked out, his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, will be following him home as the Smithsonian's 10 year lease expires soon.

All the rental money the Chinese receive in excess of expenses is supposed to go to preserving panda habitat, but these fees have become so high that complaints of "panda profiteering" have become increasingly common.

So while their persona remains cute and cuddly in the eyes of the public, zoos have started to question if a panda rental is a good investment, particularly when their high cost has required cuts elsewhere.

In any event, it seems to me that China's approach to pandas has something in common to its approach to redundant antiquities, i.e., they belong to the State as a matter of right, but they may be made available to others for a steep price.

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