This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou plans to visit China from March 27 until April 7, becoming the first former or sitting leader of the democratic island to visit the Chinese mainland, his office confirmed.
He will embark on the trip amid tensions across the Taiwan Strait as China intensifies pressure on Taiwan ahead of the next presidential election there, in January 2024.
Ma served as president of the Republic of China from 2008 until 2016 and remains a senior member of Kuomintang, or KMT, which ruled Taiwan for a long time and now is the main opposition party. The Republic of China (ROC) is the official name of Taiwan.
Beijing considers Taiwan a Chinese province that should be reunified with the mainland but the island’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party considers Taiwan an independent and sovereign country and rejects the “One China Principle,” which says “there is only one China in the world.”
The Ma Ying-jeou Culture and Education Foundation confirmed on Sunday that Ma planned to visit several Chinese cities, including Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha, Chongqing and Shanghai.
It said the main purpose of his trip to China was for Ma to worship his ancestors during the upcoming traditional Tomb Sweeping Festival, or Qingming Festival in Chinese.
Ma will also bring a group of Taiwanese students for an exchange program with their Chinese counterparts, as well as visit historical sites related to Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, and the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told the media on Monday that Beijing welcomed Ma’s visit as “worshiping ancestors on Qingming Festival is a common custom of compatriots on both sides of the strait.”
“We will provide necessary assistance for Mr. Ma Ying-jeou’s visit and wish him all the best for his trip,” the spokesman said.
Ma Xiaoguang also said that strengthening exchanges between young people “can add new strength and inject youthful vitality into the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
Boosting peaceful cross-strait relations
According to Xiao Xucen, executive director of the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation, Ma Ying-jeou’s visit will help promote peace in the Taiwan Strait.
“Communications between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have been frozen in recent years,” Xiao told a news briefing on Monday. “If young people are allowed to connect and get to know each other better, that will definitely reduce the current tension.”
The office of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, said it has not yet received any report about Ma’s trip to China.
Chen Ting-fei, a lawmaker from Tsai’s ruling party, said Ma only could represent himself and not the 23 million people in Taiwan, adding she could not figure out what role Ma would play during his trip to China.
It is unclear whether Ma Ying-jeou will meet with President Xi Jinping or any senior Chinese official during the trip. Ma previously met with Xi in Singapore in 2015.
The KMT was defeated by the Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War and had to move the ROC government to Taiwan in 1949. The Kuomintang is considered to be supportive of a closer relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.
“Ma Ying-jeou’s visit may be intended to persuade voters that the KMT can promote dialogue and take the lead in easing cross-strait tensions,” said Yoshiyuki Ogasawara, a Japanese political scientist and expert on Taiwan’s politics.
“The Democratic Progressive Party will criticize Ma’s visit and amplify the narrative that ‘Kuomintang is pro-China.’ There is also a possibility that the United States, which takes a strong stance against China, will warn against the KMT,” said Ogasawara, a professor at the School of Global Studies at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
“The impact on Taiwanese voters will depend on how Ma Ying-jeou’s visit is being analyzed and discussed. Most people in Taiwan are of the view that they reject unification [with the mainland] but support dialogue with China,” the analyst said.
Ma, who turns 73 in July, is “the only high-ranking Taiwanese official that has never been to mainland China despite being engaged in cross-strait relations for more than forty years,” said Ma Ying-jeou Foundation’s Xiao Xucen.
Under the provisions of Taiwan’s National Secrets Act, former presidents are subject to exit restrictions for five years after leaving office.
It has been more than five years in Ma’s case but according to the Cross-strait People’s Relations Ordinance, he must submit an application for a mainland visit two days before departure and submit a report within seven days after returning to Taiwan.