Belgium: Pandas spark language row

CHINA’S latest round of panda diplomacy has triggered a row in linguistically divided Belgium – leaving Dutch speakers angry that two loaned bears will go to a zoo in the French-speaking region.

The panda loan has sparked a diplomatic row in divided Belgium. Picture: Getty

China offered to lend the giant pandas during a visit by French-speaking Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo this week.

The bears will go to Pairi Daiza, a wildlife park in the French-speaking region of Wallonia, not far from Di Rupo’s home.

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Di Rupo said the 15-year loan of male and female pandas, Xinhui and Haohao, was an honour for Belgium. But not all of his compatriots agreed.

Zuhal Demir, an MP from the Flemish separatist N-VA party, said it was clear that Di Rupo had intervened to ensure the pandas went to the French-speaking south rather than Antwerp Zoo, in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders.

The head of Flanders region, Kris Peeters, also visiting China, said he would seek an explanation from the prime minister.

The 170-year-old Antwerp Zoo said it was disappointed by the decision, noting it had already housed pandas in 1987 and had bid unsuccessfully for another pair ten years ago.

Di Rupo’s office said only Pairi Daiza had made an official request for the pandas and had contacted China directly.

Belgium has long been split between the two regions, with different languages, education systems and regional policies.

Wallonia was the engine of the economy until the post-war years, but has slipped behind. Flanders, which is now wealthier and has an unemployment rate about half that of southern Belgium.