Pandas from China caught up in Belgium's political schism

Belgian PM accused of directing gifts from China away from Flanders to French-speaking south

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am


A red carpet welcome awaits two distinguished Chinese visitors to Belgium today. Arriving at Brussels airport on a chartered Boeing 747, the couple and their entourage will be met on the tarmac by Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo before being whisked to their new home: a zoo.

The two - male panda Xing Hui (which means Twinkling Star) and female Hao Hao (Cute) - are already celebrities. They have their own Twitter feed and Hao Hao was voted China's favourite panda at the international Giant Panda Zoo Awards last year. But their imminent arrival in Belgium has prompted political infighting, with Flanders grumbling that the country's oldest and best-known zoo, in Antwerp, was deliberately snubbed by the French-speaking Di Rupo when he helped broker the deal to bring the pandas to Belgium.

The pandas will stay in the Pairi Daiza animal park near Mons, the city where Di Rupo is mayor. But Antwerp zoo, founded in 1843 - just 13 years after Belgium's independence - insists its pedigree and prestige should have made it the first choice.

A zoo spokesman said it was better equipped to host the two four-year-olds, having accommodated two other pandas in 1987. "All in all we are rather surprised that the prime minister did not think of us," a spokesman said.

Zuhal Demir, an MP with the Flemish separatist N-VA party, has accused the prime minister of blatant favouritism.

"Di Rupo made a political choice," Demir said. "He was not acting as prime minister of all Belgians."

However, Pairi Daiza's founder and owner, Eric Domb, insists the zoo was scrupulous in its application for the pandas. "The pandas are Chinese, not Walloon or Flemish," he said.

Pairi Daiza is Belgium's most popular zoo, with 1.25 million visitors last year. Antwerp Zoo, however, saw visitor numbers stagnate at 840,000.