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Kowtowing to the Authoritarian Emperor? Taiwan’s Former President Visits China

What is happening?

On Wednesday, former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) – acting as a private citizen – met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping (習近平). This was the second meeting between Ma and Xi since 2015, which saw a historic first encounter between the sitting leaders of the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China. 

The meeting coincided with Ma’s eleven-day trip to China during which he led a group of 20 students affiliated with his Ma Ying-jeou Culture and Education Foundation. As per the foundation director Hsiao Hsu-tsen (蕭旭岑), the invitation came from Beijing and encompassed an itinerary featuring visits to Beijing, Guangdong, and Shaanxi. The schedule also included attending a ceremony at the mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor and academic exchanges with students from Peking and Sun Yat-sen Universities, aimed at “helping Taiwanese students seek out their roots.”


What is the broader picture?

Ma Ying-jeou is a member of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT). He formerly served as KMT’s chairman and Taiwan’s president from 2008 until 2016. The KMT is generally regarded as the more China-friendly party in Taiwan, opposing Taiwanese independence and favoring economic ties with China. However, the party disagrees with China’s “one country, two systems” model for cross-strait relations, as it implies Chinese governance over Taiwan. 

During his presidency, Ma prioritized the promotion of Chinese identity and moved away from the ongoing process of Taiwanization. His administration also emphasized the liberalization of cross-strait exchanges by signing several agreements, including the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which triggered the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan due to concerns over the lack of transparency in the negotiation process. This student-led and nationwide protest remains one of Taiwan’s most significant social movements and recently commemorated its ten-year anniversary

In 2015, a historic meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore marked the first encounter between leaders of both sides since 1949, symbolizing reconciliation amid long-standing tensions. However, this meeting led to domestic debates and protests in Taiwan, with concerns about a potential political Trojan horse. Around April 2023, Ma also embarked on a 12-day trip to China. Even though he did not meet with Xi, it incited pushback from people on both sides. Notably, Ma is the sole Taiwanese president to have met with Xi Jinping and remains the only former Taiwanese president to have visited China on multiple occasions. These actions highlight his position on cross-strait relations, emphasizing a dedication to fostering closer ties with China. 

In the lead-up to the 2024 presidential elections in Taiwan, Ma has emerged as a contentious figure, drawing criticism from both citizens and his party, the KMT. His recent remarks on cross-strait relations, including assertions that trust in Xi Jinping is necessary, along with a call to reduce the defense budget because Taiwan “can never win against China,” have fueled controversy.


Why does it matter?

Beijing’s invitation to Ma is important in the context of cross-strait relations. Xi has put significant value on cross-strait youth exchanges in recent times as a way strengthen ties between the two sides through soft power tactics. This gesture reflects Beijing’s strategic approach to engagement and signifies its concerted efforts to mold the narrative surrounding Taiwan’s identity, aiming to steer it away from de-Sinicization. Furthermore, it may suggest that Beijing considers the KMT member and former president Ma to be a significant intermediary in cross-strait relations. This is evident from the Chinese government’s refusal to engage with the current ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which Beijing does not acknowledge as a legitimate governing body and often depicts as separatist due to its advocacy for Taiwanese sovereignty.

Finally, the timing of Ma’s trip to China and the potential meeting with Xi coincides with two notable geopolitical events: the US-Japan-Philippines summit and the anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Beijing opposed back in 1979. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions between the US and China, this timing carries symbolic weight, indicating the intricate interplay of interests and strategic positioning in the Indo-Pacific region. Specifically, it highlights the significance of Taiwan’s status and its relationships with key regional actors amid these dynamics.