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Taiwan’s Former President Meets Xi Jinping During China Trip

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Taiwan’s Former President Meets Xi Jinping During China Trip

Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition KMT held a second meeting with Xi Jinping – his first as a private citizen – during an 11-day trip to China.

Taiwan’s Former President Meets Xi Jinping During China Trip

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou waves as he leaves for China, at Taoyuan International Airport in Taoyuan City, northern Taiwan, April 1, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou met on April 10 at 4 p.m. at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

Earlier media reports suggested that Ma and Xi would meet on April 8. It has been speculated that the original date of the meeting was changed so that Ma and Xi would meet on the same day as a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who is in Washington, D.C. on a state visit. Spokespeople for the Chinese government have denied that there ever were plans for a meeting between Ma and Xi on April 8. Spokespeople for Ma also denied such reports as disinformation. 

Ma is ostensibly on an 11-day trip to China with a student delegation. This follows a trip by Ma to China in March of last year, which was also conducted under the auspices of a student delegation. Ma’s trip in 2023 made him the first former Republic of China (ROC) head of state to visit the Chinese mainland since the Chinese Civil War. During the 2023 trip, he visited cultural sites linked to the history of the ROC and his family grave in Hunan, delivering a speech in Hunanese.

It is generally thought that Ma’s first trip – which took place before the January 2024 presidential elections – was meant to reinforce the political narrative that the Kuomintang (KMT) is the only political party in Taiwan that can conduct cross-strait relations with the Chinese Communist Party. Some of the destinations on Ma’s current trip may also have been political signaling, as he visited tech companies sanctioned or probed by the United States and European Union. 

Ma did not meet with Xi during his 2023 trip, which took place in a similar time frame to a stopover visit to the United States by President Tsai Ing-wen. While Ma initially stated that he would not meet with high-ranking Chinese officials last year, he later met with Taiwan Affairs Office director Song Tao nonetheless. 

However, Ma previously met with Xi Jinping in November 2015, shortly before he left office as president. The meeting between Xi and Ma was the first time that heads of state of the ROC and People’s Republic of China (PRC) had met since the Chinese Civil War and took place in Singapore, as neutral ground. 

This time around, Ma was meeting with Xi as a private citizen, and traveled to China to do so. The official readout from the Chinese government did not give Ma a title, nor mention any position held by Ma.

For the most part, dialogue between Ma and Xi covered similar ground to previous meetings. Both Ma and Xi stressed the cultural links between Taiwan and China, framing Taiwan as linked to 5,000 years of Chinese culture. Indeed, Ma referred many times to Taiwanese as being “descendants of the Yellow Emperor” during his ongoing trip to China, in a number of emotionally charged moments that saw him break into tears. 

Ma stressed the importance of taking Taiwanese students to experience a direct connection to Chinese culture through travel to China, while Xi expressed his goodwill toward Taiwanese young people. The KMT has struggled with youth outreach in past years, seeing as Taiwanese identity continues to rise among young people and Chinese identity is on the decline. By extension, Chinese efforts to appeal politically to Taiwanese young people have also not been successful.

More significantly for policy, Xi and Ma reiterated opposition to Taiwanese independence and commitment to the 1992 Consensus. This drives home the point that the 1992 Consensus continues to be the CCP’s preferred framework for conducting cross-strait relations, even if backlash against the 1992 Consensus in past years has led successive KMT leaders – including current party chair Eric Chu – to suggest that they would like to drop the idea or distance themselves from it. 

The KMT’s 2024 presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, also initially was hesitant to commit fully to the 1992 Consensus. Nevertheless, Ma may see the 1992 Consensus as part of his political legacy, hence his emphasis on it as a bedrock for cross-strait relations

Taiwanese media experienced restrictions covering the meeting. Only five Taiwanese outlets were allowed to cover the meeting from Beijing, which were the United Daily News, CtiTV, China Television, TVBS, and ETToday. These are generally pan-Blue outlets. Reporters were not allowed to bring phones to the meeting, only some outlets were allowed to photograph, and a livestream from CtiTV was interrupted partway through by security, as also occurred with a livestream during the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting in Singapore. 

Reporters did not receive confirmation that Ma would indeed be meeting Xi until the day of the meeting. Specifically, reporters were informed to test twice for COVID-19 before noon, and to gather at the Great Hall of the People by 2:45 p.m. As such protocol is only required for events in which Xi is present, this indicated that China’s top leader would likely be meeting with Ma. 

There was some contention between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps on where Xi would be meeting Ma in the Great Hall of the People. Initial reports suggesting that the meeting would take place in the Taiwan Hall or Fujian Hall of the Great Hall of the People were framed by the pan-Green camp as suggesting that Xi did not see the meeting as important. This is in line with how pan-Green criticisms of Ma’s 2023 trip to China suggested that Ma had been snubbed by Xi and that he had not received the dignity that a former head of state should be accorded during a trip abroad. 

When the meeting instead took place in the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People, pan-Blue media outlets emphasized that this was where important events such as China’s accession to the World Trade Organization took place. 

Otherwise, pan-Green criticisms of the trip have sometimes mocked the five times during his visit that Ma publicly broke into tears, or a gaffe during his remarks with Xi in which Ma referred to the ROC. Reference to the ROC is usually avoided, including on his 2015 trip, given the sensitivities of the relationship between the PRC and ROC. 

Compared to the 2015 meeting, reactions to the 2024 Ma-Xi meeting were much more subdued in Taiwan. The 2015 meeting took place in the charged atmosphere in the aftermath of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the student-led movement that involved the monthlong occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in protest of a trade agreement that the Ma administration hoped to sign with China. The deal would have allowed for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry. 

Protests preceded the 2015 Ma-Xi meeting, with several thousand gathering outside of government buildings such as the legislature and Ministry of Economic Affairs. Likewise, the night Ma’s plane was to depart for Singapore, there was a dramatic attempt to prevent the plane from taking off by several dozen demonstrators led by former Sunflower Movement student leader Chen Wei-ting, who stormed Songshan International Airport before being blocked by police. 

Furthermore, there were views from analysts at the time that Ma would attempt to frame his 2015 with Xi as having led to a new political consensus that superseded the 1992 Consensus. After all, the talks that led to the 1992 Consensus were conducted by lower-ranking officials, and it was not unthinkable that the Ma-Xi meeting could have been framed as having led to a new agreement. 

This did not occur. Similarly, there was speculation last year that meetings between KMT vice chair Andrew Hsia – who has been dispatched to China for regular trips to meet with Chinese government officials since the August 2022 visit to Taiwan by the then-U.S. House speaker – and CCP chief ideologist Wang Huning could result in a new political formula that would replace the 1992 Consensus. Yet the KMT does not seem to be moving away from the 1992 Consensus at this juncture. 

Party chair Eric Chu stated today that vice chair Sean Lien would be sent to attend the Straits Forum in June on the KMT’s behalf in June. This indicates that the KMT will continue with efforts to conduct relations with the CCP in a way that circumvents the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government. In doing so, the KMT would be leaning into its traditional claim that it is the only party in Taiwan able to maintain stable cross-strait relations.

At the same time, it is to be questioned whether the unpopularity of the 1992 Consensus or Ma’s own controversial reputation could potentially prove a stumbling block for the KMT at a time when the party seems to be trying to change around its pro-China image. Recent moves by Chu include reorganizing the party to decrease the power of the ideologically hardline pro-unification Huang Fu Hsing branch, which consists mostly of former veterans. 

Shortly before the 2024 election, in an interview with German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Ma called for “faith in Xi Jinping.” His remarks stoked backlash to the extent that he was not invited to the KMT’s final election rallies. Yet on the occasion of his current meeting with Xi, the KMT has mostly presented a united front with Ma – even if this is not necessarily what Chu wishes for. As such, Ma’s trip to China may complicate unresolved internal contradictions of the KMT at present, even if the trip may reinforce his standing in the party in light of the fact that Xi Jinping considers him a figure of enough importance to grant a personal meeting.