Ma Ying-jeou, who was the president of Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China) between 2008 and 2016, landed in Shanghai on Monday with a large delegation for a 12-day trip through several Chinese cities, during the which he could meet some important Communist Party dignitaries. The visit has been described as historic in many ways: it is the first time since 1949 (i.e. since Taiwan began to govern itself de facto independently) that a former Taiwanese president has visited mainland China. It also comes at a very unusual time, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will make an equally important trip to the United States on Wednesday.
Former president Ma Ying-jeou is a prominent member of the Kuomintang, the nationalist party which took refuge in Taiwan after the defeat suffered by Mao Zedong’s communists and which today (albeit in a very different way from the past) supports the need to maintain close or at least friendly relations with the People’s Republic, i.e. with mainland China led by the Communist Party.
The trips of the president and former president, belonging to two opposing parties and with differing views on relations with China, were compared to each other and received much comment in Taiwan, where views on relations with China China are still very polarised, to the point of dividing the political sphere in two: on the one hand there is an independence alignment which wishes to defend and strengthen the detachment from the People’s Republic, while on the other there is a nationalist alignment which wants to maintain ties with China.
Then there is a minority but very noisy faction which in politics and in the media is asking for the reunification of the island to China: this faction is at the center of great controversy and is suspected of being part of influence operations that the Chinese Communist Party is allegedly putting taking place in Taiwan.
The controversy over the trip to China
In the current context of international tension around the Taiwan Strait which divides the island from China, the trip of former President Ma has aroused numerous controversies. The Beijing government does not recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of China over Taiwan (it is no coincidence that during the visit Ma will be called “Mr Ma” and not “former president”), which instead is considered a simple rebel province of the People’s Republic which a day it will be reunified with the motherland: preferably peacefully but if necessary also by force. For its part, however, at least from a formal point of view, Taiwan still considers itself the legitimate government of all of China. In fact, this is a legal fiction and no one has any illusions that Taiwan will one day return to govern the mainland part of the country. In fact, however, China and Taiwan exist today as separate entities.
The main reason for the controversy these days is the fear that Ma might amplify attempts at Chinese influence on Taiwan. The Taiwanese independence activists, currently in government, accused Ma of contributing his trip to the campaign of pressure and intimidation against Taiwan. “It is completely unthinkable that Ma would make such a visit,” said the spokesman of the Democratic Progressive Party, which is the pro-independence political formation to which current president Tsai Ing-wen belongs and to which all those who argue that Taiwan should proceed towards a formal separation from China.
The push towards unification
The entire political, economic, social and cultural life of Taiwan is largely defined by relations with the People’s Republic. While one section of the population rejects any association with mainland China, there is another who consider themselves Taiwanese he also recognizes his own Chinese identity. In terms of ethnicity, language and cultural traditions, the inhabitants of Taiwan are not very different from the Chinese who live in the provinces across the strait: a part of the population of Taiwan is descendant of the Chinese who fled to the island after the defeat of 1949.
Although the percentage of those who have increased over the years they want a clear separation from mainland Chinaindependence in fact, on the island there is still a large minority that believes that unification should be pursued. According to polls, about 5-10 percent of the Taiwanese population are in favor of this option.
The Kuomintang has long since abandoned this perspective and is today a status quo party, other groups instead continue to promote “reunification” with China. These are very small but extremely visible formations in Taiwanese politics, which is known to be extremely combative. One of them is called the Chinese Unification Promotion Party (PPUC) and is led by Chang An-lo, a character with a very complicated past. Chang, before reinventing himself as a politician advocating for reunification, was a well-known local organized crime boss. After a long career in the criminal underworld, Chang moved into politics in the early 2000s, when an independence government was established for the first time in Taiwan.
Alongside pro-unification political parties, many of which have been several times over the years suspected of being financed directly by China due to their large economic resources, there is also an ecosystem of very noisy media in Taiwan promoting the cause of reunification. One of the best known is the CTi TV network, whose all-news TV channel it was taken out in 2020. The station had previously been fined numerous times for broadcasting inaccurate reporting, and the government official who decided to revoke its license said the channel was susceptible to outside influences, but did not directly mention China. Today CTi TV broadcasts its news programs on YouTube and other digital platforms, while other channels of the network are still visible on TV.
Disinformation and propaganda
As told in aReuters investigation published a few years ago, the Chinese authorities in the past have paid several Taiwanese publishers to publish news that put the Chinese government in a good light and which, by contrast, discredited the capabilities of the Taiwanese one. The psychological offensive to shape public discourse and perception of the Taiwanese population is an increasingly central element in Chinese strategy. The operations to influence public opinion on the island they have become a highly controversial and top priority topic since 2016, when the current pro-independence president Tsai Ing-wen was elected.
Against Chinese disinformation and propaganda, the Taiwanese government has therefore approved a law in recent years legislation on external infiltration. The law should protect Taiwan’s normal democratic life from Chinese interference, especially in the information field. But China‘s strategy has adapted and in recent years has resorted to new channels to influence civil society on the island. As explained by Lorenzo Lamperti, a journalist living in Taipei, i social media and in particular the influencer are increasingly emerging as new propaganda weapons used by China.
For this reason, Ma’s visit has aroused so many reactions in Taiwan. Although the former president has said his trip to China is non-political in nature, its conjunction with Tsai’s visit to the United States risks muddying the waters. As a Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker said, “China obviously wants to create the impression that while President Tsai is conducting an important visit to the United States, a former Taiwanese president is making an unprecedented trip to mainland China.” In Taiwan in recent days Ma’s trip was talked about more than Tsai’swhich should stop in New York and Los Angeles for what are formally only stopovers en route to Guatemala and Belize, two of the last 13 countries in the world to recognize the legitimacy of the Taiwanese government.