Ma Ying-jeou made history when he met with Xi Jinping on November 7, 2015, in Singapore. This was the first face-to-face meeting between presidents of the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China, respectively, in six decades. Navigating the complicated cross-strait relationship, Xi and Ma agreed to shake hands but addressed one another as “Mr.” instead of “President.”
Not surprisingly, the meeting became headline news in the world media and was globally billed as “symbolic,” “landmark,” and “historic.” It was the highlight of the warm cross-strait relationship that marked Ma’s eight-year tenure, but beneath the surface, tensions were growing on both sides of the strait. By November 2015, Taiwan’s people had already dramatically rejected Ma’s attempt at expanded economic cooperation with China through the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Two months after Ma shook hands with Xi, his Kuomintang (KMT) lost the presidential election to Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ushering in a deep freeze in cross-strait ties.
Ma is now attempting to re-create history in relations across the Taiwan Strait as the first former Taiwanese president to step foot into the mainland. Just like his meeting with Xi, Ma’s current trip to China comes on the eve of Taiwan’s presidential election, scheduled for early next year. Just like in 2015, the political agenda of Ma’s current visit – an agenda shared with the KMT, now in opposition – is to wrest the initiative from the ruling DPP and preserve his own legacy of a “one China principle” with “different interpretations.”
Ma Ying-jeou’s Visit to the Mainland: The Reaction From Taiwan
In the pre-trip announcement, Hsiao Hsu-tsen, the executive director of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation in Taipei, said Ma would lead a delegation including his four sisters, several of his former aides, and 30-odd students to visit five mainland cities – Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Changsha, and Chongqing – for 12 days from March 27. Intriguingly, the trip will see Ma avoid a visit to Beijing and thus evade shaking hands with top Chinese Communist Party leaders, including Xi.
Ma visiting the mainland will become a historic moment for both Taiwan and China. According to Li Da-jung, who teaches international relations at Tamkang University in New Taipei, Ma’s meeting Xi in Singapore in 2015 had already turned him into a “political icon” in both China and Taiwan. Ma’s “devotion to promoting peaceful cross-strait relations has made him a political icon” in the eyes of the Chinese people across the strait, Li said. The former KMT ruler’s tenure as president (2008-16) is remembered by many in Taiwan as a period of relative calm and peace between Beijing and Taipei, Li added.
However, Ma’s relentless campaign to reduce animosity between the two peoples across the strait has been severely criticized by the ruling DPP and the current president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, out of concerns that the former president might attempt to strike deals with the mainland government.
Indeed, Ma’s trip has generated political controversy in Taiwan, including within the KMT. In an article for the Singaporean Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, editor Han Yong Hong observed last Friday that “KMT chairman Eric Chu was informed of Ma’s trip on March 19, to which his reaction was ‘This is bad’!”
The timing may be more of a coincidence than assumed. Some reports suggest Ma’s visit was originally planned to be held in 2020 but was rescheduled due to COVID-19. Now, it is timed around the Qingming Festival, when Chinese pay respects to ancestors – a tradition shared among the Chinese people on both sides of the strait. The narrative built around the visit in both Beijing and Taipei has been free of any political interpretation and frames the trip as Ma paying “tribute to ancestors” to avoid creating unnecessary political controversy.
Ma’s Visit Sparks Controversy on Both Sides of the Strait
Even though Ma’s trip must have been cleared and welcomed by China’s top leadership, the early commentaries in China’s official media are far more circumspect than might be expected. A spokesperson of the mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) described the purpose of the trip as being to “strengthen exchanges of young people and add fresh vitality to the development of cross-strait relations and peace.” Both the CCP and Ma have avoided painting the visit in political colors.
In a rare public display of divergence with the CCP position – not only on the visit but also on China’s so-called “cardinal” principle of the “1992 Consensus” – a Chinese commentary published by Beijing-based commentator Tan Quixote (a penname) sharply criticized Ma, holding him responsible for instigating “pro-independence” political forces in Taiwan. The same commentary severely lambasted the KMT for interpreting “1992 consensus” as a “two-state theory.”
The signed article, which first appeared the day after the sudden announcement on March 19 that Ma would be embarking on a historic journey to the land of his ancestors, claimed that during his tenure, Ma tacitly supported “de-sinicization” of Taiwanese textbooks in conjunction with the then opposition party DPP. “Besides, it was also during Ma’s tenure that the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan increased manifolds,” Tan added.
On the other hand, endorsing Beijing’s official position that China welcomes “Taiwanese regional” leader Ma Ying-jeou’s visit, some Chinese scholars have described the landmark trip as “a breakthrough in promoting cross-strait exchanges.” Zhang Wensheng, deputy dean of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University in China’s southeastern Fujian province – situated facing Taiwan – told the hawkish Global Times in Beijing that Ma’s visit will ease tensions created under Tsai’s tenure.
In contrast, reacting sharply to experts in China who point out the KMT and the DPP fundamentally differ on the “1992 consensus,” the mainland critics of “peaceful reunification” say both Ma and Tsai are “pawns” in the hands of the United States. One critic even claimed that “Ma’s sudden visit to the mainland this time is instigated by the U.S. to make up for the ramifications of Tsai’s scheduled trip to the U.S. around the same time.”
Yet another commentary described the KMT’s current chair, Eric Chu, as proactive in promoting “pro-America policy” and “no different from Tsai Ing-wen.” The author accused Chu of being the United States’ “right-hand man” and a Washington informant.
Additionally, when Hu Xijin, the former editor of the Global Times, recently stated that “Taiwan today is Peiping [the ROC’s name for Beijing] in 1949,” Tan Quixote ridiculed Hu in his signed commentary on WeChat. “Does Hu even know what degree of support and political foundation the liberation of Peiping enjoyed in 1949?” Tan scolded.
Tan added that “Ma Ying-jeou is the tacit founder of Taiwan pro-independence movement. He also clamored to formulate Anti-Secession Law for Taiwan.” It was Ma, and not Tsai, who articulated the “One China” principle in a way that conflicts with Beijing’s definition of the same – the “One China, different interpretations” mantra.
“Ma is also the author of ‘no unification, no independence, and no force,’” Tan continued. “Ma, just like the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen, is aggressively campaigning for ‘no war’ – meaning no war for unification, but he, like the KMT, is fully supportive of the U.S advocacy for ‘war against the mainland.’”
Another Chinese scholar, Lin Duo, who also writes on cross-strait affairs, in a direct reference to Hu Xijin, wrote: “China should show urgency on the Taiwan issue. Many mainland elites think that the time is on our side, and we should not have any sense of crisis. Such a thinking is highly improper. We must clean up ‘pro-U.S.’ and ‘pro-Japan’ elements amidst public intellectuals.”
Clearly, some Chinese scholars resent Ma and his trip to the mainland. When alluding to Ma’s meeting with Xi in Singapore eight years ago, these scholars have deliberately avoided referring to the handshake in Singapore as “Ma meeting Xi.”
The critics are not quite pacified that Ma is not being welcomed in Beijing, and will not be seeing Xi this time. The dominant public opinion expressed on the Chinese social media, and being reflected in op-ed writings, is evidently critical of the trip being framed as a visit to pay respects to Ma’s ancestors.
To sum up, the anger among many Chinese with regard to Ma’s visit is best manifested in what Tan, cited above, wrote in his column: “The KMT died when it advocated that it is ‘Taiwan’s KMT’… The best thing for China is to stay away from the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou.”