Ex-Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to China raises eyebrows around the world

First Taiwanese leader to visit China since the civil war.

Yen Zhi Yi | March 31, 2023, 06:04 PM

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Taiwan’s former president, Ma Ying-jeou, is on a visit to China from Mar. 27 to Apr. 7.

He is accompanied by a delegation consisting of his own former aides, students and academics, Associated Press (AP) reported.

Ma's itinerary includes stops in Nanjing, Wuhan, Hunan, Chongqing, and Shanghai. Beijing is not on the list.

Why is the visit noteworthy?

This is the first time a former or current Taiwanese leader has visited China since the end of the civil war, The Guardian reported.

The Nationalist Chinese government was defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949 and later fled to Taiwan.

Ma was Taiwan’s president from from 2008 to 2016, during which there was an increase in Taiwan-China exchanges. However, this was halted after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the national elections in 2016.

Ma's visit was first announced via a statement released by his office on Mar. 19, according to AP.

The former Taiwanese president previously met with China's president Xi Jinping during a summit held in Singapore in November 2015, though the visit was noted more symbolic than conclusive.

His visit also comes shortly after the cutting of diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Honduras.

Cross-strait tensions

Ma is a senior member and former chairman of Taiwan’s main opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT). The party favours closer ties with China, but has strongly denied being pro-Beijing and still opposes rule by China.

The KMT recently secured electoral victories in the local elections in November 2022, prompting Taiwan's current president Tsai Ing-wen to resign as party chair of the ruling DPP.

Ma’s visit was hence framed as a bid to ease tensions between Taiwan and China and a “peaceful exchange”, according to AP.

Additionally, the purpose of his visit has also been painted as “paying respects to ancestors”, due to the timing of the trip coinciding with the annual Qing Ming Festival.

His trip to China is also happening concurrently with Tsai's politically-sensitive visit to the American continent.

China, who sees Taiwan as a core interest, continued to reiterate their firm opposition to any form of official interaction between Taiwan and the U.S. as well as Tsai’s transit plans.

Ma's itinerary so far

Taiwan & China should avoid war

On Mar. 30, Ma paid a visit to the Wuhan Archives Hall that exhibited China's experience in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and commended the country's actions, according to Focus Taiwan.

He then had a meeting with Song Tao, the head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

Ma said that Taiwan and China must “do everything possible to avoid war and conflict” from breaking out, according to a transcript of his comments cited by Reuters.

The leaders of both sides are responsible for maintaining peace, he was quoted as saying.

Chinese state media Xinhua reported Ma as saying that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to “one family” and that they should “resolutely” oppose Taiwanese independence separatist activities and foreign interference.

He reportedly highlighted that the acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” resulted in both sides setting aside disputes and establishing win-win relations, according to Focus Taiwan.

The “1992 Consensus”, which is rejected by the DPP, refers to the alleged outcome of a meeting in 1992 in which both sides recognise that there is only “one China” but have different interpretations of it.

Both sides are "Chinese"

Earlier on Mar. 28, Ma delivered a public statement at the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum in Nanjing, China.

He mentioned the official name for Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC) -- which is not recognised by China -- and said that the 1992 Consensus set a foundation for peace, an earlier article by Focus Taiwan reported.

He also remarked that people on both sides of the Taiwan strait are Chinese (“zhonghua”) people, according to the transcript by the Central News Agency (CNA).

The term “zhonghua” refers to Chinese in an ethnic or cultural manner rather than referring to nationality.

He also paid his respects to Sun and celebrated his deeds, notably the overthrowing of imperialism in 1911.

Cozying up to China?

Ma’s visit comes after KMT’s deputy chair, Andrew Hsia, visited Beijing in February 2023.

Hsia was accused of “acting as an enemy of Taiwan” by the chairman of Taiwan Statebuilding Party Wang Hsing-huan, according to Taipei Times.

The party is a close ally of the ruling DPP.

DPP members have criticised Ma for “courting the Communists” and stated that he should instead voice out against China's military drills directed against Taiwan, according to The Guardian and Reuters.

The party's premier and epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen disagreed with Ma’s praises of China’s pandemic response and remarked that China failed to control its coronavirus situation, Liberty Times reported.

KMT continues to call for the reduction of tensions and keeping up dialogue between China and Taiwan.


Top image via Getty Images - AFP/Sam Yeh