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How political is Ma Ying-jeou's trip to China?

Much baseless speculation on Ma's China trip, but how political it is depends on Ma

Ma Ying-jeou Foundation announced former President Ma Ying-jeou will not meet any important people on his trip to China.

Ma Ying-jeou Foundation announced former President Ma Ying-jeou will not meet any important people on his trip to China. (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — Former president and Kuomintang (KMT) chair Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is going to China on a 12-day Tomb Sweeping Festival journey, with much speculation surrounding what his purpose is and what, and who he will see.

From his itinerary, some of it is indeed personal. He plans to visit his ancestors' graves for tomb sweeping.

He also plans to visit the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, the Memorial Hall of the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, the Wuchang Uprising Memorial Hall, the Chongqing War Museum, and the Sihang Warehouse Battle Memorial. As a former leader of the KMT, that itinerary makes perfect sense.

For the overtly political part of his journey, he will be joined by his family and bodyguards and he will lead a delegation of students. Doubtless the reason for leading this delegation is to educate the already pan-blue students about the KMT’s past and they are also going to be visiting Chinese universities to meet students there.

While that sounds innocuous enough, there are several political messages being sent. As the former president, his trip is going to be closely watched, and everything he does is going to be scrutinized for symbolism.

Symbolism of the students

One clear message he is sending is that under his administration, relations with China were better and a big part of that was student exchanges and the arrival of students from China to study in Taiwan.

Under the administration of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the Chinese side is cut off from sending any new students to Taiwan.

Ma likely wants to burnish his legacy with this trip and underscore the KMT messaging. Just prior to his trip, Ma publicly endorsed current KMT Chair Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) “pro-America, friends with Japan, peace with China” agenda and slogan.

The KMT believe they are more capable of handling relations with China with a resulting peace. However, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will only warm to relations in exchange for concessions, and in the end they will never be happy until they have annexed Taiwan.

The student delegation is a highly symbolic reminder that under the KMT this was once common and that it would resume if the KMT is voted back into power.

President Tsai's U.S. trip

Speculation exists that Ma timed this trip to China to draw attention away from President Tsai’s trip to the United States and diplomatic partners in the Americas. The case for this is doubtful and Ma’s explanation of the end of the pandemic and to visit his ancestors’ graves for the Tomb Sweeping Festival sounds more likely, bolstered by the time these trips take to prepare, especially with so many students.

The Tsai trip was only fairly recently announced but, that it happened to coincide is still bad news for Tsai.

While the current president will be trying to firm up diplomatic support for Taiwan by the U.S., the former president's presence in China sends a very different message about Taiwanese priorities. If Ma meets with any prominent CCP officials, it will look even worse.

A lot of speculation exists as to why the KMT is sending Ma to China. It is unlikely the KMT is sending Ma to China, it is more likely Ma simply informed the KMT he was going.

KMT not happy

Eric Chu is not particularly happy about Ma’s trip, and would rather he did not go. The KMT has been trying to de-politicize the trip to further avoid being “painted red.”

Underscoring the KMT's concern about this trip, they sent out a bold graphic with the following:

Yes universities, No Beijing

Yes students, No Xi Jinping

Yes academic exchanges, No political dialogue

Yes understanding, No demonization

Yes worship ancestors, No compromising dignity

The KMT could not stop the former president from going, so they pivoted to damage control mode instead.

“No political dialogue” has been the source of intense speculation as, undoubtedly, some CCP officials would like to meet with him.

Will Ma keep the KMT’s promise of no political dialogue?

Will he meet Wang Huning?

Ma will not be meeting with Xi Jinping (習近平). But it is possible he could meet with Wang Huning (王滬寧), who holds several powerful positions, including as Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. It has been widely reported that Xi has tasked Wang with coming up with a new formulation on Taiwan to replace “one country, two systems” and possibly the “1992 consensus,” since both have become widely discredited and are ballot box poison in Taiwan.

A Wang-Ma meeting could be concerning because Ma does believe in “unification” and, unlike people in the CCP, he is a very experienced politician. He has a much better sense of what could work with voters in Taiwan. His advice would be valuable to Wang.

Hopefully, Ma will keep to the KMT’s pledge of no political dialogue. If he does, then the damage caused by the trip will likely be minimized.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. For more columns by the author, click here. Follow him on Twitter: @donovan_smith.