October 13, 2005

After Choosing Astronauts, China Shortlists Pandas

BEIJING -- China's Taiwan Affairs Office, used to discussing a delicate relationship with an island it considers its own, on Thursday presented pictures and resumes of 11 pandas in the running to be sent as a gift across the strait.

A list of 23 of the endangered animals was whittled down to 11 and the lucky winners, a boy and a girl, will be picked for their looks as well as "psychological health," officials said.

The successful candidates will be the two which "most closely represent the character of China's 1.3 billion population," an official said.

The dramatic announcement of the shortlist was shown live on state television. Number 13, for instance, was listed as "loves to climb trees" and pictures showed the candidates sitting coyly, resting or happily chomping on bamboo shoots.

Resumes included their weights, ages and lineage.

"We are very, very careful in choosing these pandas," one of the officials said.

The panda offer was made at the end of a historic visit to the mainland by Lien Chan, who heads Taiwan's Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which once ruled all China and was the civil war enemy of China's Communist Party.

Whether the pandas ever reach Taiwan is ultimately up to independence-leaning President Chen Shui-bian whom China does not recognize.

The giant panda is one of the world's most endangered species and is found only in China. An estimated 1,000 live in southwest Sichuan province and northwestern Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.

Statistics from the State Forestry Administration released last year show the number of pandas in the wild in China has risen by more than 40 percent from 1,110 in the 1980s to 1,590, while a total of 161 are in captive breeding programs worldwide.

China has offered pandas to Taiwan several times in the past, but they have been turned down, in part, it has said, because the climate is unsuitable.