Taiwanese ex-president Ma Ying-jeou’s visit to China sparks speculation

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is set to visit China between March 27 and April 7, 2023. The trip marks the first cross-strait visit by a former or current top leader of the island since 1949, when the Kuomintang political party (KMT) of the Republic of China (ROC) was exiled to Taiwan after its defeat by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the Chinese civil war

While Taiwan has been a de facto autonomous political entity since 1949, because the CPC's People's Republic of China replaced the ROC in the United Nations in 1971 as the sole representative of China, the majority of countries in the world do not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taiwan is also facing near continuous threat from China. When Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-Taiwan independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential election in 2016, the PRC threatened the island with economic sanctions and military drills. 

Now that Taiwan is looking to its next presidential election on January 13, 2024, observers are speculating how cross-straight relations might be affected. Although the KMT, which is in alignment with the “One China” principle, won big in last year’s local elections, the results of the upcoming presidential election hinge on whether the KMT can resolve cross-straight tensions without jeopardizing the island’s autonomy.

Ma’s mainland visit has sparked political speculation as he remains an iconic figure of the KMT.  Although Ma stressed the aim of the trip is for ancestor worship at the Qingming Festival on April 6 and cross-strait exchanges among college students funded by his foundation, sources said that he will unofficially meet with Chinese officials. Chris Horton, a Taiwan-based journalist, tweeted:

In addition, Ma’s trip is occurring in parallel with current President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to Central America, which includes a stopover in the United States. 

China expressed strong opposition to Tsai Ing-wen’s diplomatic visits and stopover, claiming that the visits violated the “One China Principle” and served as an attempt to propagate “Taiwan independence.” Officials openly welcomed Ma’s visit.

In response to Ma’s plan, the DDP accused Ma and the KMT of embracing China and working with the CCP’s United Front authorities. On the other hand, the KMT downplayed the political nature of the trip and stressed the cultural and academic exchange aspect:

A number of KMT politicians, such as KMT lawmaker Lai Shyh-bao, pointed out that ex-Premier Frank Hsieh Chang-ting of the DPP had also visited mainland China for ancestral worship back in 2012 without facing any accusations. Another KMT lawmaker, Cheng Li-wun, stressed that Ma’s visit exemplifies the KMT’s political stances: “pro-US, friendly with Japan and peace with mainland China.”

However, many believe the KMT won't be able to maintain the political tightrope it's trying to walk. Yaita Akio, a Japanese journalist based in Taiwan, addressed the political implications of Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland tour via his Facebook page.

好像是在向全世界大聲宣布,台灣不僅有「親美派」,也有「親中派」。[…] 人大剛剛結束,新政府就迎來了台灣的前總統,說明習主席的對台灣政策”是正確的、是受到了台灣大多數人民支持的”,因為國民黨在不久前剛剛贏了九合一地方選舉。…當然也有輸家。最大的輸家應該是國民黨吧?據各種民調,台灣民眾對中國不喜歡、或者不信任的人已經越來越多,遠遠超過半數。這個時候馬英九去中國,又不敢把台灣民眾的真實聲音傳遞給中國。這使得國民黨現在正在競爭總統大位的幾個人灰頭土臉,受到影響頗大。

This is like telling the world Taiwan has a “pro-US camp” and a “pro-China camp” […]  China’s National People Congress just closed and the new government cabinet which is now in office is greeted by the former Taiwanese President. It demonstrates that President Xi’s policy toward Taiwan is “correct and supported by the majority of the people in Taiwan” because the KMT won the nine-in-one local elections just not long ago. […] Of course, there are losers. The biggest one should be KMT, right? According to various polls, more and more people in Taiwan dislike or distrust China, far more than half of them. Ma Ying-jeou won’t dare tell Beijing the genuine desire of the Taiwanese people on his trip and hence will splash dirt onto KMT's current presidential contenders and bring adverse effects [to the KMT’s election campaign].

Exiled mainland Chinese activist Wang Dang shared similar views:

Ma Ying-Jeou has been called on call to visit China. From the party’s deputy chair to the former president, KMT is reaching new levels in its tour to meet Xi’s cabinet. This is a desperate gift to Xi Jinping’s throne, and the KMT is really paying a big tribute…

Last month, KMT’s deputy chair, Andrew Hsia, visited China and met with Song Tao, the new head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. 

It is quite clear that KMT is eager to reestablish relations with China without upsetting Taiwan’s autonomy, yet Ma’s visit will be difficult, as mainland Chinese online nationalists are unlikely to give him a warm welcome due to the KMT’s waffling position regarding Taiwan's autonomy. This played out through various Weibo debates, as one Weibo influencer with more than two million followers foretold that Ma would be asked if he supports Taiwan's reunification with China:



It seems that Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland trip has been confirmed. There is little space for changing public opinions across the straits. Ma will face an ultimate question on his trip: Mr. Ma, do you support reunification with China?”
If he is not willing to answer this question, or if he avoids a straightforward answer, his mainland trip will be totally meaningless…

The most popular comment following the post even blamed Ma for paving the way for the rise of pro-Taiwan independence DPP: 


Ma is pro-Taiwan independence. During his presidential period, the school texts were flooded with pro-independent materials and this nurtured a pro-independent generation. He also bought weapons [from the US]. He just pays lip service to the 1992 Consensus [One China consensus between CCP and KMT signed in 1992] and harvests from China. He is one of the sinners of the history…

Ma Ying-jeou was in the Taiwan presidential office from October 2008 to December 2016 with 58 percent of the votes. His first presidential trip was to Latin America, with a number of stopovers in the US. As for cross-strait relations, his position was, “no reunification, no independence, and no war.” During his presidency, Ma relaxed many restrictions on trade and investment with China. One year before he completed his presidential term, he met with mainland Chinese president Xi Jinping in Singapore.

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