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Taiwan's former leader Ma sets off on China tour

March 27, 2023

The visit is a first for either current or former leaders of the democratic, self-governing island. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have devolved in recent years.

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou answers to press before leaving for China.
Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou is heading to mainland China for the first timeImage: Chiang Ying-ying/AP/picture alliance

Former Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou began his 12-day visit to mainland China on Monday, arriving at the Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Ma, who is bringing a cohort of Taiwanese students with him as part of an exchange with two Chinese universities, is visiting as a private citizen.

However, his role as the former head of the democratic, self-governing island carries political weight. He has framed the trip as a means to improve relations between Beijing and Taipei.

"I hope through the enthusiasm of the youth and their interactions to improve the cross-strait mood, so bring peace faster, and earlier," the 73-year-old told reporters before setting off.

Ma's visit comes a day after Honduras — one of the 14 countries to formally recognize Taiwan — broke its ties with the island

Why is China visit by Taiwan ex-leader so controversial?

What will Ma do in China?

Ma is a member of the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang) and held the presidential office between 2008 and 2016. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015, shortly before rival Tsai Ing-wen won the presidency.

The Kuomingtang had maintained closer cross-strait relations than Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who have angered Beijing through their insistence on Taiwan's independence and sovereignty.

Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province and has pledged to take back control of the island.

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However, Monday marks former President Ma's first visit to the mainland. He will also be taking part in the traditional Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5 when families visit the graves of their ancestors.

A trip by President Tsai to Belize and Guatemala — two of the remaining countries that formally recognize Taiwan — will coincide with part of Ma's China tour.

How have people in Taiwan reacted?

Ma will visit several cities — not including Beijing — and may meet with Chinese officials. The delegation of students traveling with him are set to meet with their counterparts from Shanghai's Fudan University and Changsha's Hunan University.

The DPP has criticized Ma's travel plans, but there has been little in terms of controversy on the island due to other Kuomingtang politicians having previously made similar trips.

Groups gathered at the airport to see off Ma, with some protesting his actions while others were expressing support.

Ian Chong, a professor at the Department of Political Science of the National University of Singapore, told DW that "Beijing is adding a lot of military pressure from exercises near Taiwan, they are putting pressure economically on Taiwan, so there is concern that Ma's visit sends a signal of weakness or capitulation."

He also said he suspects "Ma is trying to leave an imprint that forces the debate in Taiwan to move towards some sort of conciliation toward Beijing."

A former student leader from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests urged Ma to cancel the visit.

"If you have even a strand of affection for Taiwan ... you should announce the cancellation of your trip," Wang Dan wrote on his Facebook page.

Tensions between China and Taiwan have been heightened since the DPP took power. Beijing cut off contact and has been carrying out military maneuvers in the proximity of the island

Why is Ma's visit to China stirring controversy at home?

ab/fb (AP, Reuters)

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