In case you hadn’t noticed, people get pretty emotional about pandas. So when Chinese media reported Monday that the beloved patriarch of a three-member panda family at the Taipei Zoo had died, mourning ensued — and so did political speculation.

That’s because, in addition to being cuddly-looking crowd pleasers, pandas are a key tool of Chinese diplomacy. It sends them to other countries as goodwill ambassadors, which is how Tuan Tuan, the 11-year-old panda, who was reported to have succumbed to canine distemper, and his partner ended up in Taiwan in 2008. Relations were pretty warm at the time between Taiwan and China, which claims the island as its territory.

But things might soon change. Taiwan’s China-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou, will step down Friday. His successor, Tsai Ing-wen, has said she wants to “maintain the status quo,” but China views her with skepticism, and her party formally supports independence, the AP noted.

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Against that uncertain backdrop, Tuan Tuan’s alleged death was considered an ominous omen. According to the Taipei Times, rumors swirled online that it meant Taiwan-China unification would never happen, or that it “could only mean that the bilateral relationship is bound to change.”

The Taipei Zoo quickly stepped in to rebut the rumors, and it did so in an amusingly media-friendly fashion: by staging a panda proof-of-life photo. In it, Tuan Tuan grasps the bars of his enclosure, and in front of him are Monday’s newspapers. The zoo assured the public that the panda and his brood are alive and thriving, and the Global Times, the Chinese website that had reported Tuan Tuan’s demise, retracted its story.

“We welcome everyone to visit them at the zoo,” Chin Shih-chien, the zoo’s director, said of the panda family.

Presumably, that invitation extends to Chinese visitors as well.

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