The Great Oakland Panda Hunt 

The search for increased international trade sometimes leads city officials into very exotic places--China's Wolong Giant Panda Preserve, for instance

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But the real fun in this first meeting comes when Li suggests we step out to the balcony to enjoy the spring air. Oakland officials are delighted to discover that enjoying the spring air also means getting to play with what must be every politician's dream toy: a remote-control device that allows the user to control a fountain in the square below. Bobb is urged to take the reigns at the control panel on the mayor's balcony, and while Dalian businessmen enjoy a picnic lunch and elderly citizens gather for gossip around the quiet fountain, Bobb and De La Fuente push a few random buttons, eliciting a resounding rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" from the fountain's loudspeakers and a magnificent arch of spray--which soaks any number of the hapless citizens enjoying the park.

It's in the final moments of our visit with Mayor Li, in the formalities of leave-taking, that I get my best glimpse yet into how Oakland does business in Asia. It's time for gift-giving. There had already been some behind-the-scenes scuffle over gifts --one was almost left behind in the van. The most important gift from Oakland to Dalian is definitely going to be late in coming: two Oakland black-and-white police cruisers will soon patrol Dalian's broad avenues, complete with "Oakland" and "Dalian" clearly lettered on the sides. Councilmember Larry Reid is arranging the gift, and he expects to deliver the vehicles in person later this month. It's part of a larger law-enforcement exchange that aims to share crime-fighting technology between the two cities, and although Chang had hoped the presentation would coincide with his visit, Dalian officials show no signs of irritation.

The next morning, the Oakland delegation is still finishing breakfast when the appointed departure time rolls around. This gives me a chance to chat with An Lin Bai, a Dalian businessman who, along with dozens of other Chinese investors, sank thousands of dollars into Oakland's international trade center project. After several years, that money is still languishing--the city's plans to use the abandoned uptown Bermuda Building were squelched last year by the building's owners, and since then no one has been able to find a suitable space in the East Bay's still-hot real estate market. "The investors here are waiting, and asking me, 'What is going on?' Bai complains. "We have many people here interested in doing business in Oakland, but for three years, nothing has happened." He and his colleagues are a little frustrated, he admits--but definitely still interested.

It's an apt conversation to set the tone for the day's round of visits, which include stops at Dalian's "Port and High-Tech Industrial Zone"--touted in its promotional literature as a "Northern Silicon Valley." The high-tech zone, which includes an incubator for pioneers in genetic engineering and digital technology, was granted economic incentives by Beijing in 1991, and has attracted investment from nearly five hundred foreign companies. Needless to say, its directors hope Oakland officials will send more business their way; De La Fuente replies that it's important to encourage investment not just from Oakland to Dalian, but also from Dalian to Oakland. As they tour the expansive grounds of the 35.6 square kilometer zone, Oakland officials wryly admire their Dalian counterparts' ability to build with lightning speed, lamenting the drawn-out public-permit process that slows development back home. "Look at all this new housing," Claggett points out. (Bobb, who tends to stay in the background during official meetings anyway, is not there for the tour. He's arranged to spend the day golfing--and making important business contacts, as he says later.)

As the delegation's stay in Dalian draws to an end and its meetings with wildlife officials in Beijing draws closer, my thoughts begin to turn to pandas. While the overall goal of this trip is expansion of Oakland's role in global trade, it's quite clear that the Oaklanders have their sights set on acquiring a panda pair--and failure over the next few days could mean a significant loss of face. As Duenas points out, "Not too many people have pandas. It would definitely give Oakland another notch to promote ourselves internationally."

Clearly, Chang's years of relationship-building have gone a long way, but the panda, surely, is even more important to China. The Chinese regard the highly endangered bears as a national treasure, and the once-common practice of donating pandas to allies as strategic and diplomatic gestures has given way to a highly regulated program that stresses habitat conservation and research. Today breeding pairs of captive-born pandas are sent to foreign zoos on long-term loan. These zoos, in turn, donate a million dollars a year each toward panda conservation in the wild. The zoos are also required to host Chinese scientists who collaborate with zoo vets on research into panda behavior, reproduction, and biology. Conservation advocates and wildlife promoters widely hail the reformed program as a great step toward saving the giant panda--but it means that any community interested in acquiring a panda has to be ready to pony up a significant sum. The Oakland Zoo is certainly not prepared to approach that fund-raising effort alone; the zoo's entire operating budget is just $5 million a year. Plus, the zoo is just finishing a fifteen-year renovation and is preparing to launch another expansion to house a collection of California native animals; capital campaigns for those projects alone are keeping zoo staff plenty busy.

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