Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland China trip shows he’s Beijing’s best hope to win Taiwanese hearts and minds

“Even though our political systems and perspectives may differ from those of the mainland, we are all descendants of the Yellow Emperor, belonging to the same Chinese nation,” Ma said upon returning to Taiwan on Thursday, wrapping up a trip he dubbed a “journey of peace”.

“I also hope that the young people of Taiwan can set aside ideological differences and recognise the historical and cultural connections between Taiwan and the mainland, which cannot be severed by politics.”

President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with former Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. Photo: EPA-EFE/Xinhua
He added that his trip showed it was still possible for the “1992 consensus” to serve as a basis for addressing disputes between Beijing and Taipei. The consensus is a tacit agreement that for the two sides to continue to talk, they must recognise there is only one China, though each side can have its own interpretation of what that means.

Analysts believe Ma’s trip could help Beijing amply its message that it is still seeking peaceful reunification with Taiwan, despite souring tensions that have unnerved regional powers and the West.

They also said the visit sends a well-timed message to Taiwanese president-elect William Lai Ching-te of the independence-leaning DPP. Beijing-sceptic Lai will be inaugurated next month, taking over from Tsai Ing-wen, also of the DPP.

“These appeals are essential to the peaceful cross-strait reunification desired by Xi Jinping,” said Max Lo, executive director of Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, a Taipei think tank.

“Such appeals also make [Ma] the best choice for the mainland to invite for a visit, even though he no longer holds any government or political party office and is a private citizen,” Lo said.

No force can separate us, Xi Jinping tells Taiwan’s Ma in historic Beijing talks

James Yifan Chen, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University in New Taipei, said Xi wanted to “demonstrate his capabilities in managing cross-strait relations by inviting Ma to Beijing and offering him leader-like protocol in recognition of the shared legacies during their overlapping tenures”.

Ma met Xi for the first time in Singapore in 2015 – a year before he ended his second term as Taiwan’s president.

Chen said the treatment Ma received on the most recent trip was a “typical approach” Beijing used to show appreciation for “old friends”.

He added that Ma still had loyal supporters in Taiwan, and his “three noes” policy – no unification, no independence and no use of force – represented the “status quo during his presidency and has remained the mainstream opinion” until today.

Zhu Songling, a Taiwan affairs specialist at Beijing Union University, said although Ma was no longer on the political front lines and his influence had declined, he was still considered the leader of Taiwan’s pro-unification camp.

During the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential election in January, Ma led efforts to forge a joint ticket between the KMT and the Beijing-friendly Taiwan People’s Party to challenge the DPP. But the deal collapsed in late November amid a dispute over who would head the joint ticket.

‘No losers in peace’: Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou sends anti-war message in Beijing

Ma was given VIP treatment during his 11-day visit, which took him to Beijing and the provinces of Guangdong and Shaanxi. He was received by senior officials, including Taiwan Affairs Office director Song Tao, as well as local government and Communist Party heads.

On Wednesday, Xi hosted Ma at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, a venue typically reserved for foreign leaders to meet with the mainland leader and senior officials. Ma also had dinner with Xi.

“Ma Ying-jeou has characterised this trip as a journey of peace. He represents the voices of those who opt for cross-strait peace and development – which is the mainstream opinion in Taiwan,” Zhu said.

Zhu added that voices like Ma’s would help boost Beijing’s confidence in forging peaceful cross-strait unification.

He said the Xi-Ma meeting came at a “very favourable” time for both sides to “calmly and rationally convey accurate public opinion” and carry out cross-strait dialogue as Taiwan was about to get a new president and Washington was also seeking warmer ties with Beijing.

In their talks, Xi said: “Compatriots on the two sides are both Chinese. There is no grudge that cannot be resolved, no problem that cannot be talked through.”

Xi also said differences in political systems could not change the fact that the two sides were one country. “Foreign interference” cannot stop the historic trend of a “family reunion”, he said.


Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou calls for both sides of Taiwan Strait to ‘avoid war’

Former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou calls for both sides of Taiwan Strait to ‘avoid war’

Ma responded with a message of peace, saying, “If there’s war, it would be unbearable to the Chinese nation, and the two sides have the wisdom to handle their disputes peacefully.”

He called for both sides to “respect the values and ways of life of their people”, saying recent cross-strait tensions had “triggered a sense of insecurity among the public in Taiwan”.

“Ma is still Beijing’s top choice to connect the two sides of the Taiwan Strait,” said Stephen Tan, managing director of International Policy Advisory Group, a Taipei-based geopolitical risk and policy consulting firm.

“Through Ma’s visit and his meeting with Xi, Beijing has sent out a clear message to Taiwan and the world that the two sides belong to one China and peaceful unification is still an option, while national and economic integration are inevitable trends,” Tan said.

Chao Chun-shan, a retired professor of mainland China studies at Tamkang University, said the message was also intended for Lai ahead of his inauguration next month.

He said the talks between Xi and Ma provided insight for Lai about cross-strait peace.

Ma’s visit comes at a time of heightened cross-strait tensions. While Ma had a policy of engagement with the mainland as president, relations have soured since Tsai took office in 2016, with Beijing cutting off communication with Taipei after Tsai refused to accept the 1992 consensus.

“It is up to Lai to figure out whether he should adjust his cross-strait policy to uphold stable cross-strait relations,” Chao said.

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Beijing – which sees Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary – has been deeply critical of Lai, labelling him a “troublemaker” and an “obstinate separatist” who could bring war to the island.

The United States, like most countries, does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state but opposes any attempt to take it by force and remains committed to supplying it with weapons.

Chao said that if Lai chose to “remain ambiguous on the Chinese nation and identity issues”, Beijing was expected to intensify its pressure against Taiwan.

Lo, of the Taipei think tank, said the visit also reflected Beijing’s hopes to improve cross-strait links through youth exchanges.

In Shenzhen, Ma took the students to visit drone maker DJI, tech and video games giant Tencent and electric vehicle maker BYD.

Tencent and BYD rank among the world’s top 500 companies, while DJI has captured 70 per cent of the global drone market.

Ma spent three days in the southern province of Guangdong, where he led the students in paying respects at the Huanghuagang Martyrs Cemetery and visited the former residence of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China.

In the northwest province of Shaanxi, he attended a ceremony to honour the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, and visited Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum and other historical sites.

In Beijing, Ma and the students visited the historic Marco Polo Bridge, where the first shots were fired in the Japanese invasion of China.

“There are no winners in war, and there are no losers in peace,” he said, adding “mistakes in war may be forgiven, but historical truth can’t be forgotten”.

On the Great Wall in Beijing on Tuesday, Ma led the students in singing a patriotic song about the fight against the Japanese during World War II.

Lo said the Taiwanese students’ first-hand observations and their interactions with locals during the trip could challenge their stereotypes of mainland China.

“Young people in Taiwan have increasingly identified themselves as Taiwanese and treat the mainland as the enemy due to the DPP government’s long-time policy of distancing Taiwan’s historical links with the mainland. They have been taught mainland China is poor and backward,” Lo said.

‘Hard to predict’ Beijing’s next moves towards Taiwan under Lai, analysts say

According to surveys, more than 60 per cent of the island’s people identify as Taiwanese, compared with 30 per cent who view themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Just 3 per cent identify only as Chinese.

However, 40 per cent of Taiwanese say they have an emotional connection to mainland China, according to a survey by Washington-based Pew Research Centre conducted late last year.

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said it would take time and continuous effort to change public opinion in Taiwan.

“But compared with other age groups, Taiwanese youth are relatively more proactive,” he said, suggesting that young people would be more willing to change their views if they visited the mainland more often.

Beijing also hopes the KMT can serve as a guardrail against Taiwan independence, analysts said.

“Though the KMT has become increasingly Taiwan-centric compared with the past, remaining friendly with the mainland to promote cross-strait peace and oppose Taiwan independence is still its primary policy,” Lo said.

As the biggest opposition party, the KMT is eager to help keep the DPP from pushing the envelope in its quest for independence, Lo said.

He said after Ma’s trip, Beijing was reported to have invited more KMT heavyweights to visit.

Ex-Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin, also a former KMT vice-chairman, left for mainland China on Wednesday to take part in a ceremony to honour the Yellow Emperor in the central province of Henan.

Sean Lien, the incumbent KMT vice-chairman, will visit the mainland to attend the Cross-Strait Forum in June, while the party’s former chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu will lead 200 young Taiwanese in a trip to the eastern province of Zhejiang, according to the KMT.

Tan of the International Policy Advisory Group said although the KMT lost the presidential election three consecutive times, “no one could rule out a KMT comeback in the future as power transitions are common in Taiwan’s democracy”.

Additional reporting by Amber Wang


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