Ma Ying-jeou’s Trip to China Further Illustrates the CCP’s United Front Cultivation of Taiwan Youth

Ma Ying-jeou’s Trip to China Further Illustrates the CCP’s United Front Cultivation of Taiwan Youth

MaYingJeou Mast
Ma Ying-jeou’s Trip to China Further Illustrates the CCP’s United Front Cultivation of Taiwan Youth

On April 1, former Republic of China (ROC) President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) departed for an 11-day trip to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Ma was leading a delegation of 20 university-age students on the trip, with a planned itinerary that included meetings with PRC officials, sightseeing, and goodwill exchanges with student counterparts in the PRC. Upon his departure from Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport, the former president described the visit to China as “a trip of peace and a trip of friendship.” This theme was picked up by much of the international media—with, for example, the German state news agency Deutsche Welle issuing the headline “Taiwan Ex-President in China to Promote Peace.”

Although Ma has been out of office since 2016 and currently holds no government position, he remains an influential powerbroker within the opposition Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨). Accordingly, his actions and comments garner significant media attention. Over the past year, Ma has emerged as a more outspoken and controversial figure in Taiwan politics, including a public (and ultimately unsuccessful) role in attempting to broker a unity presidential ticket between the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 民眾黨). Ma also generated controversy with a January interview in which he advocated for Taiwan’s unification with China, as well as for placing “trust” in PRC leader Xi Jinping (習近平)—comments that prompted his own party to distance itself from Ma in the immediate lead-up to the January 13 presidential and legislative elections.

Outwardly, much about this recent trip has seemed similar to a trip that Ma took to the PRC in March-April 2023—which was the first such trip made by any current or former ROC president since 1949—which Ma proclaimed to be both a goodwill trip, and a private journey for the sake of visiting ancestral gravesites and locations associated with the history of the KMT. However, as with last year’s event—which was also accompanied by a student delegation—Ma’s April 2024 trip had much more going on behind the scenes than merely a private goodwill journey. Much of the international press coverage of Ma’s visit focused on his higher-level political meetings, especially the audience with Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) General Secretary Xi Jinping on April 10 (see further below). However, the press coverage of such meetings fails to capture the real, underlying significance of the early April trip. Ma’s trip represents a propaganda junket hosted by the CCP to promote its preferred narratives about Taiwan. However, even more than this, the trip should be understood as part of the CCP United Front Work Department’s (UFWD, 統一戰線工作部) ongoing programs aimed at cultivating and recruiting young adults in Taiwan.

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Image: Ma Ying-jeou reading a statement at ceremonies held on April 4 at the Tomb of the Yellow Emperor in Shaanxi Province, in which he called upon Taiwan’s young people to “feel pride as descendants of the Yellow Emperor.” (Image source: China News Service, April 4)

Delegation Activities in the PRC

During the course of its 11-day trip, Ma’s delegation conducted a range of sightseeing activities and institutional tours in three regions: Guangdong Province (southern China), Shaanxi Province (north-central China), and the capital region of Beijing. Most of the places visited were either sites of historical and cultural interest, or else company tours intended to showcase high-technology industries. There were also a handful of meetings with CCP political leaders that were publicly reported. Taken together, the delegation activities strongly emphasized the theme of reinforcing Chinese cultural identity—a message that was touted, without subtlety, in PRC media coverage. Selected events included:

  • April 1 (Guangdong Province, Shenzhen): Ma and his delegation met with Song Tao (宋濤), the director of the CCP Taiwan Office. As reported in PRC media, themes from the meeting included agreement on the need to uphold the “92 Consensus” (九二共識), and to maintain staunch opposition to “Taiwan independence separatism and interference by foreign forces” (堅決反對“台獨”分裂和外部勢力干涉). Song continued to accompany the delegation through parts of its subsequent itinerary, such as the visit to the Tomb of the Yellow Emperor (see below).
  • April 3 (Guangdong Province, Guangzhou): Ma’s delegation visited Zhongshan University (中山大學) for the sake of “promoting cross-Strait student exchanges” (推動兩岸學生交流), which Ma described as “my most important goal, for which I will make great effort.”
  • April 4 (Shaanxi Province, Yan’An): The group made a visit to attend ceremonies at the Tomb of the Yellow Emperor—the mythical culture hero and progenitor of the Chinese race—on the occasion of the Ching-Ming Festival (清明節). In prepared remarks for the press, Ma stated that: “I also hope that our young people from Taiwan will take this rare opportunity, and keep firmly in mind the origins of Chinese culture and the Chinese people, and feel pride as the descendants of the Yellow Emperor.”
  • April 6 (Shaanxi Province, Xian): The delegation made a visit to the terra cotta warriors museum and archaeological site. During the visit, Ma stated to an escorting guide that “We will start to encourage everyone to return to the past” (我們開始鼓勵大家復古). While this was perhaps a bland statement of enthusiasm for archaeology (or perhaps a psychologically revealing comment?), it was very much in keeping with the trip’s overall theme of encouraging Taiwan’s young people to cherish a sense of Chinese identity.
  • April 8 (Beijing): Ma held a meeting with Yin Li (尹力), secretary of the Beijing CCP committee. The messaging from the meeting once again emphasized the need to revive the “92 Consensus” and cross-Strait negotiations, with Ma opining that “During my tenure [as president], the two sides clinched 23 agreements and realized direct links, benefiting the people on both sides.”
  • April 8 (Beijing): Ma and the student delegation conducted a visit to the Great Wall outside Beijing, to include a media event involving the group singing “The Great Wall Ballad” (長城謠), a patriotic song from World War II.
  • April 10 (Beijing): Ma was received for an audience with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Ma, adopting the role of peacemaker, was quoted as stating that “If there is a war between the two sides, it will be unbearable for the Chinese people […] Chinese on both sides of the strait absolutely have enough wisdom to handle all disputes peacefully and avoid heading into conflict.” Predictably, PRC official press coverage focused overwhelmingly on Xi, including his assertion that “It is an objective fact that both sides of the Strait belong to one country, one people (一個國家、一個民族). Foreign interference cannot stop the historical trend of national reunion.”

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Image: Ma Ying-jeou (center) and the “Big Nine Academy” student delegation sing the “Great Wall Ballad” during a visit to the Great Wall outside Beijing, April 9. (Image source: China News)

Background of the CCP’s United Front Youth Outreach

The concept of conducting outreach efforts directed toward young adults in Taiwan is a central pillar of the CCP’s “people-to-people exchanges” (or “among the people exchanges,” 民間交流), which are intended to pursue united front cooptation of selected groups in Taiwan, while eschewing any negotiations with Taiwan’s current “separatist” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) administration. [1] Such outreach efforts have been particularly focused on the concept of encouraging “cross-Strait youth entrepreneurs” (两岸青年企業家) to live and work in the PRC. However, it has also embraced a host of other activities, including the cultivation of online influencers, orchestrated disinformation campaigns involving Taiwanese young adults as front persons, and sponsored travel delegations such as the ones accompanying Ma on his trips to the PRC.

The students traveling in Ma’s delegation are part of the “Big Nine Academy” (大九學堂), an initiative sponsored by the Taiwan-based Ma Ying-jeou Foundation (MYJF, 馬英九基金會). The “Academy” is a professional development and exchange program for undergraduate and master’s degree students under the age of thirty who “identify with the Republic of China, and have a passion for public service.” The students participating in the program are by no means monolithic, but many appear to be of mainlander (外省人) family backgrounds. For example, in an interview conducted on board the plane en route to the PRC, Ping Hao (馮灝), a student in the English Department of Tamshui University (淡江大學), described a previous trip to visit locations associated with his family’s ancestry in northern Anhui Province.

While the CCP’s united front activities directed at young Taiwan adults hit upon a handful of recurring propaganda themes—such as the economic opportunities available for those who come to work in the PRC—the clear and overriding theme of Ma’s April trip was that of reinforcing the Chinese identity and cultural heritage of Taiwan. As Ma declared in the course of the sightseeing excursions in Beijing, when he extolled the “common feeling” on both sides of the Strait, “Any efforts to decouple Chinese culture from Taiwan will not succeed.”

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping—who has previously lent his name directly to cooptation efforts directed at Taiwanese young people—also emphasized the role of “cross-Strait youth” during his meeting with Ma on April 10. As quoted in PRC state media, Xi stated that “Youth are the hope of the country, the future of the nation. Only when cross-Strait youth are well, can the future of both sides of the Strait be well. Cross-Strait youth should strengthen their aspirations, spirit, and confidence in being Chinese, and together create long-lasting well-being for the Chinese people, continuing to write new glories in the history of the Chinese people.”


Ma’s April 2024 trip to the PRC, the second in what may be emerging as an annual tradition of pilgrimages made during the springtime Ching-Ming Festival, shared much in common with the first one in March-April 2023. However, there was a noteworthy shift in tone. The 2023 trip was ostensibly personal, with Ma’s itinerary focused on visiting the tombs of ancestors in Hunan Province, as well as visiting historical sites associated with the history of the KMT. While the political undercurrents of that visit were clearly present, they were relatively subdued. By contrast, this year’s propaganda junket was more overt in its political messaging—both in terms of meetings with high-level CCP officials to promote the moribund “92 Consensus,” as well as the pervasive narratives regarding the Chinese cultural identity of Taiwan.

On the latter point, Ma seemed like a man in a hurry—intent to drive home a sense of Chinese identity that he clearly feels deeply, but that is fading among many of his fellow citizens of Taiwan. His CCP hosts, eager as ever to exploit Ma as a propaganda tool to push the narrative that most Taiwanese are eager for “reunification” with the PRC, are also clearly hopeful to advance such a sense of identity among at least a selected number of young adults in Taiwan. For the CCP, that narrative of identity is inherently political, and inextricably linked with the CCP’s ultimate goal: to annex Taiwan under conditions of full CCP political control. That goal, and the CCP’s larger efforts to coopt a selected number of “cross-Strait youth” for its own purposes, are the factors to bear in mind when considering these and other “people-to-people exchanges” organized by the CCP’s united front system.

The main point: In April, former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou led a student delegation on an 11-day trip to China to conduct sightseeing visits to prominent historical and cultural sites, and to hold meetings with high-level CCP officials. This trip should be understood as a propaganda junket that serves as a component of a much broader effort by the CCP united front system to cultivate and co-opt selected young adults in Taiwan.

 [1] The four specified sub-categories of the party’s “people-to-people exchanges” are: “youth exchanges” (青年交流), “grassroots exchanges” (基層交流), “cultural exchanges” (文化交流), and “economic exchanges” (經濟交流). See: “Expanding People-to-People Exchanges, Deepening Integrated Development” [擴大民間交流  深化融合發展], People’s Daily, July 15, 2022, http://tw.people.com.cn/BIG5/n1/2022/0715/c14657-32475917.html.