China’s Xi to host former Taiwan president in Beijing, in rare meeting echoing bygone era of warmer ties

Hong Kong CNNChinese leader Xi Jinping is set to hold rare talks on Wednesday with a former president of Taiwan who supports closer ties with China, a highly unusual meeting just weeks before the democratic island swears in a new leader Beijing openly loathes.

Ma Ying-jeou, who led Taiwan from 2008 to 2016 and is currently in Beijing on a 11-day tour across China, will meet Xi on Wednesday afternoon, his party Kuomintang (KMT) confirmed.

The carefully choregraphed moment is steeped in political symbolism: it’s the first time a former president of Taiwan has been hosted by China’s top leader in Beijing since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taipei in 1949.

At a news conference in Taipei, KMT Chairman Eric Chu said he hoped the meeting between Ma and Xi “can adhere to the basic tone set during their talks in Singapore nearly nine years ago, and can continue to lay a better foundation for future cross-strait exchanges.”

Chu was referencing the first meeting between Xi and former KMT leader Ma, since their historic summit in Singapore in 2015 when the latter was still in office.

But their reunion also highlights the widening political divide across the Taiwan Strait – and how Xi’s ever more aggressive posture toward Taipei has driven more Taiwanese away from China.

That shift was underscored in January, when Taiwanese voters shrugged off warnings by China and handed the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a historic third term by electing Lai Ching-te, who has long faced Beijing’s wrath for championing Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Since then, Beijing has poached another of Taipei’s dwindling number of diplomatic allies and ramped up patrols around Taiwan’s frontline islands after two Chinese fishermen drowned in nearby waters, while continuing to fly its fighter jets near the self-ruled island.

Ma’s meeting with Xi also coincides with a frenetic week of diplomatic activity in Washington where President Joe Biden will host the first-ever leaders’ summit between the US, Japan and the Philippines. Joint concerns over China’s increasing assertiveness under Xi, including toward Taiwan, are a key driver of that summit.

A senior source in the Taiwan government told CNN Beijing postponed the meeting from Monday to coincide with the summit between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday.


Talks preconditions

China’s pressure tactics are intended to nudge Taiwan’s incoming Lai administration toward a more accommodating political stance toward China, said Amanda Hsiao, senior China analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Ma’s visit continues this effort by underscoring Beijing’s position that cross-strait dialogue is only possible with those in Taiwan who accept the idea that the two sides of the strait belong to ‘one China,’” she said.

Beijing has cut off high-level official contacts with Taipei since President Tsai Ing-wen from the DPP took office in 2016, riding a wave of anger over Ma’s controversial trade deal with Beijing and capitalizing on the growing number of Taiwanese voters determined to maintain the island’s distinct identity.

Unlike the KMT, the DPP rejects Beijing’s precondition for official talks – an agreement under which both sides accept there is “one China,” with their own interpretations on what that means.

Official communication is unlikely to resume for Lai, who has vowed to follow Tsai’s cross-strait policies. Beijing has repeatedly rebuked Lai’s offer for talks and denounced him as a dangerous separatist and “troublemaker.”

But by fixating on Ma, who has been out of office for years and wields little power to shape Taiwan’s political reality, Beijing may be revealing “its inability to find or cultivate another Taiwanese political figure of comparable stature who is willing to play dove toward Beijing today,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a Taiwan-based fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

Beijing’s messaging

Ma is becoming something of a frequent flyer to the Chinese mainland.

The 73-year-old became the first former president of Taiwan to set foot on the mainland in late March last year, when he embarked on a 12-day trip across the Taiwan Strait. But he failed to win an audience with any leader on the Politburo Standing Committee, Beijing’s innermost ring of power.

Like last time, this year’s visit was timed to overlap with Qingming Festival – traditionally a time for people to pay tribute to deceased family members and worship their ancestors; it also comes just weeks before Lai’s inauguration as Taiwan’s president on May 20.

“A meeting at this juncture enables Beijing to highlight the shared cultural roots between Taiwan and China, and to exert pressure on Taiwan’s next administration,” Sung said.

“Beijing is using this meeting between Xi and Ma to underscore the credibility and durability of its carrots – that Beijing is good to its friends, incumbent or retired. It signals to political leaders around the world that befriending Beijing is a worthwhile long-term investment.”

And carefully curated footage of the talks – expected to reach millions of homes on prime-time television news in China – also serves as a message to the Chinese public that unification with Taiwan is still possible despite the DPP’s historic election victory.

“For Beijing, Ma’s visit is also a useful way of assuring its domestic audience – ‘We have not lost the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people, there remains cultural and historical connections that bind us, and the DPP does not represent mainstream Taiwanese views,’” said Hsiao, the analyst.


‘A journey of peace’

Ma, who is traveling in a personal capacity, called his trip a “journey of peace and friendship” before departing for the mainland with a delegation of Taiwanese students.

He has received effusive coverage from Chinese state media, which referred to him simply as “Mr. Ma Ying-jeou” or former chairman of the KMT, with no mention of his former role as the president of Taiwan.

In the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, he bowed in front of a memorial honoring a failed uprising against the Qing Dynasty launched by Sun Yat-sen, who founded the Republic of China (now the official name of Taiwan). Sun is regarded as the father of modern China on both sides of the strait.

In the northwest province of Shaanxi, Ma attended a ceremony to honor the Yellow Emperor, a legendary ancestor of the Chinese people, and urged young people in Taiwan to “remember the roots of Chinese culture and the Chinese nation.”

On the Great Wall in Beijing, he sang a Chinese patriotic song about the fight against Japanese invaders during the Second World War. The song, composed soon after the invasion started, was popular among both the Communists and Nationalists.

But his emphasis on a shared Chinese identity is increasingly out of tune with mainstream sentiment in Taiwan, where less than 3% of the population now identify primarily as Chinese, and under 10% support an immediate or eventual unification.

Meanwhile polls show growing numbers of people – especially younger voters – view themselves as distinctly Taiwanese and have no desire to be part of China.

Reaction in Taiwan

Ma’s itinerary – and his meeting with Xi – has been closely watched in Taiwan.

“The ruling party DPP will likely play down the significance of Ma’s China visits, preferring to describe it as the private act of tourism by a retiree,” said Sung, with the Atlantic Council.

“Taiwan’s opposition KMT will be torn – it wishes to celebrate Ma’s achievements with Beijing, but is also hesitant to flaunt it in the face of the Taiwanese electorate, which remains wary about closer cross-strait ties.”

Ma remains a senior member of the KMT, which won the most seats in Taiwan’s parliamentary elections in January, but failed to capture the presidency for the third time running.

As the biggest opposition party, the KMT is eager to show they are more capable of managing relations with both China and the United States, but Ma’s meeting may do more harm than help, said James Chen, an assistant professor in diplomacy and international relations at Taiwan’s Tamkang University.

“The DPP and its supporters have questioned Ma’s loyalty at home and labels the KMT (as) pro-China. Washington, especially Capitol Hill, may not appreciate Ma’s trip to China under the bipartisan anti-China sentiment,” he said.

Few experts believe the meeting will result in any substantial change to the status quo in cross-strait relations.

“The value of this meeting is primarily in its symbolism – an attempt to shape the cross-strait narrative to both parties’ favor while fundamental political differences remain,” said Hsiao, from International Crisis Group.

But for Ma, the meeting will cement his legacy on cross-strait policy regardless of its outcome.

“He likely wishes to be remembered as the sole Taiwanese leader who can break the ice with Beijing,” Sung said.

CNN’s Eric Cheung contributed reporting.