This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou, whose opposition Kuomintang espouses closer ties with China, began a visit there on Monday with a call for peace, as incumbent Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party accused Ma of “endorsing” Beijing’s territorial claim on the island.
“Apart from going to make offerings to my ancestors, I am also taking Taiwan university students to China for exchanges, hoping to improve the current cross-strait atmosphere through the enthusiasm and interaction of young people, so peace can come even faster and sooner to us here,” Ma, 73, who served as president from 2008-2016, told reporters before boarding the plane.
Ma’s departure from Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport was marked by protests from both sides of the political spectrum, with one group holding up a banner accusing him of humiliating Taiwan by kowtowing to Beijing, and another group singing communist revolutionary songs in praise of his trip.
Ma’s departure comes amid heightened tensions between Taiwan and China that has seen the People’s Liberation Army stage military incursions and large-scale exercises around the island since Tsai’s government rejected Beijing’s call for “unification.”
President Tsai called on the international community in 2018 to avoid a policy of “appeasement” of Beijing, saying that the Chinese Communist Party’s claim on Taiwan is a threat to global stability. Tsai is scheduled to embark on a high-profile visit to the United States and Central America on Wednesday.
Taiwan still bears the official name of the 1911 Republic of China after Kuomintang forces occupied the island at the end of World War II, by which time it had formed part of Japanese territory for more than half a century.
Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China, and its 23 million people have scant wish to give up their sovereignty or democratic way of life to be ruled by China, according to multiple public opinion polls in recent years.
“We should be more united … but it’s regrettable that the KMT stands with the Chinese communists and ex-president Ma disregards public disapproval to visit China at this moment,” Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party said in a statement on Ma’s visit.
A Kuomintang delegation met with Politburo standing committee member and party ideologue Wang Huning last month, and gained the strong impression that Beijing is trying to steer relations back toward “peaceful unification” rather than toward a military confrontation that could involve the United States, according to two senior party sources.
“If the other side wants to calm things down, given all of the problems we are facing with Russia, the United States, the pandemic, the economy, unemployment and all of that, then of course we want to calm things down too,” one source told Radio Free Asia.
“The Kuomintang isn’t the government, so it can’t sell Taiwan out.”
‘But we’re not fools’
The delegation was also given access to municipal leaders in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, and called upon to give their opinions in the keynote meeting with Wang Huning that focused mostly on the economy, the party sources said.
“Nobody talked about dogma in the meeting – they were all talking about the economy,” one source said. “This was a trip that was about making friends.”
“Nobody mentioned ‘unification through force’ and nobody mentioned any timetable,” they said. “Peaceful unification was mentioned, but with no sense of urgency.”
“There is definitely a channel of communication now between the Kuomintang and [China],” said one of the senior sources.
The source added: “We have to have this contact today, but we’re not fools, and we know they have plans for us. I’m not naive – I only know that we don’t have that many options.”
Beijing has denied requests for state-to-state diplomatic talks from Taiwan, as Tsai has insisted on being treated as the leader of a sovereign nation rather than a province of China.
Ma was met at the airport on arrival by Chen Yuanfeng, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the Communist Party Central Committee, amid unconfirmed media reports that Politburo standing committee member Ding Xuexiang also went to the airport, which would indicate a far higher-ranking form of protocol than implied by Chen alone.
Taiwan independence activist Chen Chun-han said Ma had “violated the will of the people.”
“His actions are very worrying for the world’s democracies that want to support Taiwan,” Chen said. “Everyone wants to support us, but it turns out we have a group of people in this country who flirt with the Chinese Communist Party regime.”
‘Our status is being belittled’
A pro-China group dressed in red and bedecked with the five-star red flag of China held up a banner that read: “Spring has come, the flowers are in bloom, and Ying-jeou is going to make offerings to his ancestors [showing that] we are all part of the same family.”
Ku Hsi-chun, who leads a Chinese patriotic association in Taiwan, said Ma’s trip would benefit people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, while a man who gave only the surname Li said he had traveled all the way from the central city of Taichung to protest Ma’s trip.
“I worry that Taiwan is being sold out,” he told reporters at the airport.
A resident surnamed Tsai said she trusted Ma – a consummate and veteran politician with a background in Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council – to do the right thing, while an office worker surnamed Chou said the visit was unlikely to affect things one way or the other.
“They’re not going to stand down all those missiles just because he went [to China],” he said. “It’s so they can lie and claim they communicated [with Taiwan], but it would be better if they dealt with our government on an equal footing.”
He said Chinese state media had only referred to Ma as an ordinary citizen, rather than giving him the title of President or former president, to which he should be entitled.
“Our status is being belittled by [China], and so is President Ma’s status,” Chou said. “It seems as if … he’s being used.”
One of the students who accompanied Ma, Chou Yong-chin, said more contact could only be a good thing.
“Communication is a must,” he said, but added that it was “not convenient” to comment on political matters.
‘We’re not going to submit’
Another student, Chiu Tai-ta, said Ma also insists on Taiwan’s national sovereignty as the 1911 Republic of China, and that the Kuomintang would never cave in to its old enemy, the Chinese communists.
“I don’t think our young people will be manipulated into returning to the motherland,” Chiu said. “Taiwan, the Republic of China, is our red line, and we’re not going to submit to communist rule.”
Chen Wen-chia, a senior consultant at Taiwan’s National Policy Research Institute, said the trip was colluding with China’s attempts to downgrade Taiwan’s status.
“It’s obvious that President Ma is being treated in a low-key manner … which downplays us as a part of China,” Chen said. “They didn’t mention that Ma was a former president, because if they did that, that would be treating Taiwan like a country.”
Beijing has been stepping up its campaign to isolate Taiwan diplomatically since Tsai was elected in 2016. Taiwan now has formal relations with only a handful of countries, including Belize, Nauru and the Vatican, with Honduras switching its diplomatic recognition to Beijing at the weekend.
Tsai announced an end to diplomatic relations with Honduras in a statement on Sunday.
“These past few years, China has persistently used any and all means to suppress Taiwan’s international participation, intensify its military intimidations against Taiwan, and disrupt[ing] regional peace and stability,” Tsai said.
But she added: “We will not engage in a meaningless contest of dollar diplomacy with China.”
“They cannot erode the Taiwanese people’s staunch commitment to freedom and democracy or our determination to engage wholeheartedly with the world,” Tsai said.
The Taiwanese foreign ministry said 82 years of bilateral friendship and cooperation had been “dismissed” by the Castro government.
“Taiwan remains unbowed & continues to work as a force for good in the world,” the ministry said via its official Twitter account.
Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said his government “will not succumb” to pressure and intimidation from Beijing.
“We will uphold the values of freedom and democracy,” Wu said. Honduras’ move comes after Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica all switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in recent years.
China’s foreign ministry said Beijing “stands ready to enhance friendly cooperation with Honduras in various fields to the benefit of our two countries and peoples.”
Analysts said the timing of Honduras’ decision could be linked to the fact that Tsai is gearing up for a 10-day trip to the Americas on March 29 with stopovers in New York and Los Angeles.
When then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, Beijing embarked on several days of military exercises, including live-fire missile launches, around Taiwan.