People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are ethnically Chinese and share the same ancestor, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said on Tuesday at the start of a historic visit to China that Taiwan’s ruling party has criticised.
Ma, in office from 2008-2016, is the first former or current Taiwanese president to visit China since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of a civil war with the Communists.
He is visiting amid heightened tension as Beijing uses political and military means to try and pressure democratically governed Taiwan into accepting Chinese sovereignty.
Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party has questioned why he is visiting just after China took away another Taiwanese diplomatic ally, Honduras, on Sunday, leaving the island with official diplomatic ties with only 13 countries.
In comments in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, where the man celebrated for overthrowing the last Chinese emperor in 1911 and ushering a republic is buried, Ma praised Sun’s contributions.
“People on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are Chinese people, and are both descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors,” Ma said, in comments provided by his office.
Ma used wording in Chinese meaning people of Chinese ethnicity, rather than referring to their nationality. Descendants of the Yan and Yellow Emperors is an expression referring to a common ancestor for Chinese people.
Most Taiwanese no longer identify as Chinese, according to polls.
Sun is officially still considered the father of the Republic of China, which remains Taiwan’s official name.
Sun is also lauded by the Communist Party for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, but the governments in Beijing and Taipei do not recognise each other.
Ma’s visit is part of outreach by Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to China in hopes of reducing tensions. The KMT traditionally favours close relations with China, but strongly denies being pro-Beijing.
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly offered talks with China, but has been rejected as China considers her a separatist. She says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
Ma, a senior KMT member, said he hoped for peace.
“We sincerely hope that the two sides will work together to pursue peace, avoid war, and strive to revitalise China,” he said, again using an expression that refers to the Chinese people as an ethnicity rather than a nationality. “This is an unavoidable responsibility of Chinese people on both sides of the Strait, and we must work hard.”
Ma is not scheduled to meet with any senior Chinese leaders on this trip. He and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Singapore in 2015.