Xi-Ma meeting: Can Chinese ethnic sentiments bridge the gap between Taiwan and the mainland?

As an advocate of the 1992 Consensus, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has always been in support of “one China, different interpretations”. However, during his recent trip to mainland China, he continually emphasised the common Chinese ethnicity, perhaps to rouse China’s sentiments.
A large screen shows news coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meeting former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on 10 April 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)
A large screen shows news coverage of Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meeting former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing on 10 April 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has made another visit to mainland China. This time around, he was holding back his emotions, grappling with deep-seated ethnic sentiments, and was treated with a higher degree of courtesy as he met with China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping, reenacting the scene of the historic Xi-Ma meeting in 2015.

Tacit agreement on the meaning of ‘one China’

The most noteworthy point in this second meeting between Xi and Ma would be how when Ma was giving his opening address, he uttered the words “the Republic of China” (ROC, Zhonghua minguo 中华民国) in front of Xi, before quickly correcting himself to say “Zhonghua minzu” (中华民族, of Chinese ethnicity). 

When political commentary programmes in Taiwan aired this fresh clip in the afternoon of 10 April, a show host could not hold back his shock, while some media outlets used the headline “Ma Ying-jeou risks it all”.  Oddly enough, the mainland did not react to this and continued to fete Ma and his people on the same night. 

Just as many are speculating whether Ma made a slip of the tongue or if he was carefully mentioning the ROC under the guise of a mistake, when Ma returned to Taiwan on 11 April, he “slipped up” again at the airport in his address to the media. He said, “We are all descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors, and we all belong to the ROC… uh, to the Zhonghua minzu.” 

A reporter asked, “Was it a slip up when you said ROC?” 

This is as good as confirming that Ma did not make a gaffe, but was intentional in mentioning “the ROC” on mainland soil and in front of the leader of the mainland...

This handout picture taken and released by the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation on 9 April 2024 shows Taiwan's former president Ma Ying-jeou (left, wearing cap) visiting the Great Wall of China in the outskirts of Beijing. (Ma Ying-jeou Foundation/AFP)
This handout picture taken and released by the Ma Ying-jeou Foundation on 9 April 2024 shows Taiwan's former president Ma Ying-jeou (left, wearing cap) visiting the Great Wall of China in the outskirts of Beijing. (Ma Ying-jeou Foundation/AFP)

Ma did not answer, laughing as he turned and left while Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Lai Shyh-bao who was beside him answered on his behalf by saying, “It was intentional.” 

Ma did not deny Lai’s response. This is as good as confirming that Ma did not make a gaffe, but was intentional in mentioning “the ROC” on mainland soil and in front of the leader of the mainland, taking action to prove that the essence of the 1992 Consensus, to which Ma had long advocated for, was indeed “one China, different interpretations” (一中各表). 

Even though both sides recognised that there is only one China, the “China” that Taiwan recognises is the ROC, while it is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that the mainland recognises — this is the tacit consensus reached by the two sides in 1992.  

It is only during exchanges “within the family” that Beijing will tacitly approve of Taiwan’s mentions of “one China, different interpretations” by not denying them. 

‘One China, different interpretations’

Notably, any mention of “the ROC” or “one China, different interpretations” outside a cross-strait setting on the international stage would be definitively rejected by the mainland. It is only during exchanges “within the family” that Beijing will tacitly approve of Taiwan’s mentions of “one China, different interpretations” by not denying them. 

The importance of this tacit agreement, often viewed as having limited function, lies in Ma’s long-standing belief that only by adhering to the 1992 Consensus can cross-strait peace be maintained. It will bring more benefits to Taiwan and widen its international political space. 

Tourists release sky lanterns during the Pingxi Lantern Festival in New Taipei City on 17 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)
Tourists release sky lanterns during the Pingxi Lantern Festival in New Taipei City on 17 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

However, pan-Green political parties in Taiwan, as well as many among the electorate, either deny or are unconvinced of the existence of the 1992 Consensus, believing that the mainland would only offer Taiwan the route of “one country, two systems”, and that there is no space for “one China, different interpretations” or the ROC to exist. Hence, there is no way and no need for Taiwan to negotiate with Beijing. 

In the face of the reality of an ever widening gap in strength between the two sides, along with the mainland’s will for reunification, Taiwan can only prepare for war, or place their hopes in the US for protection.

Many sceptics had criticised Ma for not mentioning “the ROC” during his visit this time around in a bid to meet with Xi, unlike during his trip to the mainland last year when he mentioned it several times. No one would have thought that Ma was saving it for a crucial moment, uttering the words in a guileful manner. 

... a sense of ethnic identity (民族认同) is the largest common denominator for both sides, and they both have clear signals to send to each other.

But the significance of this Xi-Ma meeting is certainly not limited to reaffirming the 1992 Consensus. It was reported that when Deutsche Welle interviewed Ma in January, he said, “As far as cross-strait relations [are concerned], you have to [trust Xi Jinping].” This remark deeply moved the mainland side, and is also one of the reasons why the second Xi-Ma meeting could be held. At the same time, a sense of ethnic identity (民族认同) is the largest common denominator for both sides, and they both have clear signals to send to each other.

Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan shaking hands before the media and then met in a function room of Shangri-La hotel in Singapore on 7 November 2015. (SPH Media)
Presidents Xi Jinping of mainland China and Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan shaking hands before the media and then met in a function room of Shangri-La hotel in Singapore on 7 November 2015. (SPH Media)

In the case of Ma, aware of the dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait, he strongly focused on ethnicity in the hope of rousing the mainland. Although both sides have different political systems, he hoped that Beijing would take into account the fact that both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Zhonghua minzu, and are both descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors, and could thus take to heart the values and way of life cherished by the people, ensuring mutual benefits and a win-win situation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait with the wisdom of Chinese culture.

More tangible and greater pressure

There are also comments that the outside world needs to more carefully study Xi’s remarks than Ma’s. Being of the same Chinese ethnicity, Xi has also comprehensively responded to Ma’s demands, but with a very different focus than that of Ma — Xi formally placed “peaceful reunification” on the table and set a clear tone for Beijing’s handling of cross-strait relations.

Chinese state media reported that of the “four resolutes” (四个坚定) that Xi has put forth, he already mentioned the need to “work together to pursue a bright future for peaceful reunification” in the first point to “firmly safeguard the shared home of those of the Chinese ethnicity”. This means that mainland China is no longer satisfied with just maintaining the status quo under the 1992 Consensus.

At the San Francisco Summit in November last year, Xi has already told US President Joe Biden that the US should “support China’s peaceful reunification”. “Peaceful reunification” is clearly on the mainland’s agenda, and diplomatic and legal battles are already underway. 

The fact that Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party has won another presidency has hastened the mainland’s moves as well. For example, after the Taiwan presidential election in January, over 100 countries and international organisations have openly reiterated their commitment to the “one-China” principle. Beijing is expected to step up its diplomatic efforts to urge more countries to adjust their position on the "one-China" issue. There will be less room for ambiguity, while Taiwan will be under more tangible and greater pressure.

People walk past pro-independence flags at the Ximen District in Taipei, Taiwan on 3 February 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
People walk past pro-independence flags at the Ximen District in Taipei, Taiwan, on 3 February 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Although both Xi and Ma talked about being of the same ethnicity, the positions they have taken are different. The mainland thinks that since both sides of the Taiwan Strait are of the same ethnicity, returning to the unified state before they became separated is only natural and also an indispensable part of national rejuvenation. 

However, Ma is unable to directly respond to “peaceful reunification” because while Ma himself holds sentiment for the Chinese ethnicity, the fact that over 60% of the people in Taiwan identify as “Taiwanese” (not Chinese) is something he cannot ignore. 

Taiwan commentators analysed that the mainland’s warm reception of Ma as a former Taiwan president and an “old friend” suggests that Ma may still have a role to play in cross-strait relations. They do not rule out the possibility of a third or even an annual Xi-Ma meeting. While the existence of this channel helps ease cross-strait tensions, whether a way out can eventually be found through the cracks requires great wisdom from the people. 

Indeed, the portion of Taiwanese who still have ethnic sentiments are caught between a rock and a hard place. While they cannot bear to part with these feelings, they are in a dilemma because the mainland lumps such sentiments and reunification with the People’s Republic of China together. Besides, there are fewer and fewer people who hold such sentiments. Ma’s confusing usage of the terms “of Chinese ethnicity” and the “Republic of China” seems metaphorical and is really not as simple as a slip of the tongue.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “习马二会难理清的家国情”.

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