Taiwan’s ex-President Ma Ying-jeou has become the first sitting or former Taiwanese leader to visit mainland China since the Communist revolution in 1949, a trip Taipei’s ruling party called “regrettable”.
Ma’s office said he was met at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport on Monday by officials who included Chen Yuanfeng, deputy head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The visit has been criticised by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Ma’s successor, Tsai Ing-wen.
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Speaking to reporters before leaving from Taiwan’s main international airport at Taoyuan, Ma, 73, said he was “very happy” to be going on a trip on which he will talk to students and pay respects at the graves of his ancestors in China.
Ma, who was in office from 2008 to 2016, is the first former or current Taiwan president to visit China since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a civil war with the Communists.
He made the trip at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Taipei as China keeps up military and political pressure on Taiwan to try to get the democratic island to accept Chinese sovereignty.
“Apart from going to make offerings to my ancestors, I am also taking Taiwan university students to the mainland for exchanges with them, 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 said in short remarks.
Taiwan’s ruling DPP criticised Ma for going, saying it was inappropriate, given former longtime Taiwan ally Honduras had ended ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing a day earlier.
In a statement on Monday, the party accused Ma, a member of the Kuomintang (KMT), of “endorsing” Beijing’s Taiwan policy with his visit.
“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,” the party said.
The KMT, Taiwan’s main opposition party, favours close ties with China although it strongly denies being pro-Beijing. The KMT says outreach to China is needed now more than ever, given the tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Ma met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in late 2015, shortly before Tsai was elected.
China has rebuffed Tsai’s repeated calls for talks, believing her to be a separatist. She says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
Ma is not scheduled to meet any senior Chinese officials, but the head of his foundation said last week that Ma would be “at his host’s disposal” if they arrange such a get-together.
Both supporters and opponents were at the airport for Ma’s departure. Demonstrators from the pro-independence group, Taiwan Republic Office, were allowed to show banners inside the airport briefly before being pushed out by police.