At first glance, Nicola Sturgeon’s visit to China, scheduled to take place next week, makes perfect sense.
The First Minister will be able to talk about trade, strengthen the links between the Edinburgh and Beijing governments, and perhaps give a cursory mention of human rights as she walks out the door.
But Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the true purpose of the visit is far more clandestine: the swapping of Scotland’s male panda.
After seven years of failing to produce cubs with Tian Tian, Chinese officials have been left frustrated and embarrassed by the underperformance of an animal which is regarded as a global symbol of Chinese power.
Secret tests have taken place to establish that the reason for the lack of baby pandas at Edinburgh Zoo is Yang Guang’s low sperm count.
Now, following pressure from Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, the Scottish Government has agreed that a secret swap will take place to substitute Yang Guang with a new panda from China.
On Friday, the First Minister will flick through an A4 ring binder which contains scores of laminated images of male pandas which have been pre-approved by China. As a matter of political courtesy, Sturgeon will have the final say on which panda will fly to Scotland for a new life – and will also be allowed to see the creature during her visit and to name him. Diplomats have privately stated that the swap can take place without anyone knowing as “they all look the same”.
A source told Scotland on Sunday: “It’s not as if anyone is going to notice the difference. Black and white.”
Edinburgh recently announced new direct flights with China and the plan is for the new panda to fly in on the first flight from Beijing on 12 June. Officials said this would minimise stress for the animal.
“The panda will go first class. We are taking no chances here. This isn’t a crate job. If he wants to watch All The President’s Men with a gin and tonic he will get it.”
The arrival of the first Hainan Airlines flight is likely to be accompanied by diplomatic hoopla. Speeches will be made and ribbons cut, but in the background the new panda will be processed and Yang Guang will go back on the same flight.
“There is a low tolerance for failure over there. He’s had seven years. He faces an uncertain future,” said a source.
A spokesman for Edinburgh Zoo, owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “We don’t comment on transfer speculation.”
Yang Guang hasn’t been a great transfer. He probably generated more headlines when he gave himself a fright when a stick of bamboo fell over. It was captured on CCTV.
Sturgeon’s visit to China next week comes just over a year after a £10 billion investment deal with the country collapsed.
The First Minister is to take part in high-level business and government meetings during her visit to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. She says the aim of the trip will be to show the world’s second largest economy that Scotland is a “fantastic place to invest”.This will be her first visit to China since 2015.
Latest figures show that exports from Scotland to China are increasing at a faster rate than to any of Scotland’s other top five export partners, with a rise of more than 40 per cent last year.
In December, the First Minister met Vice Premier Liu Yandong in Edinburgh during her visit to the UK. Liu’s successor, Li Lapfoor, will greet the First Minister on her arrival in Beijing.