About those pandas: a modest alternative proposal

To reject outright China’s generous offer of exotic creatures for public display would be unwise, of course
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks on as his wife Laureen holds a Panda in Chongqing, China Saturday Feb. 11, 2012. Two giant pandas will call Canada home for the next 10 years. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Adrian Wyld)

The announcement during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent trip to China that two giant pandas will be provided to Canadian zoos signaled a long-awaited turning point toward more cordial bilateral relations.

For five years at Toronto’s zoo, followed by five more at Calgary’s, Er Shun and Ji Li will no doubt warm the hearts of many thousands. And yet, given China’s human rights record, it’s hard to celebrate the prospect without a slight pang of misgiving.

To reject outright China’s generous offer of exotic creatures for public display would be unwise, of course, in light of the realities of the changing global economy. Still, a compromise option might be worth considering.

Rather than flatly turning down the pandas, why not suggest a diplomatic alternative? What I have in mind is for Prime Minister Harper to request instead the loan for a decade of Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

Practical objections will naturally be raised. After all, wherever Beijing has provided them, giant pandas have proven unrivaled attractions at the fortunate host zoos. Judging from photographs, however, Liu also looks gentle and friendly almost to the point of cuddliness, and with proper marketing could make a compelling exhibit.

Instead of a steady supply of bamboo to devour, keepers at the Toronto and Calgary zoos would have to provide him an Internet connection and a laptop. Crowds could then watch Liu as he peacefully composes essays building on his Charter 08 blueprint for the nonviolent introduction to China of democracy, freedom of opinion, and fair competition among political parties.

To those who recoil at the notion of keeping Liu in a cage, I point out that he should be used to it by now. China sentenced him to eleven years in prison on Dec. 25, 2009 for writing sentences like this one:

“When the ‘rise’ of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.”

The loan of Liu might well be refused by the Chinese authorities. In that case, there’s always the simple solution used when Beijing kept him in prison rather than letting him travel to Oslo to accept his Nobel in 2010. A chair was left empty for him at the ceremony.

If they put an empty chair behind bars at the zoo in Toronto or Calgary, I would definitely take my daughter to see it.