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In sign of chilling ties with China, Taiwan blocks ex-president from visiting Hong Kong

Outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, and President-elect Tsai Ing-wen wave as they prepare for Tsai's presidential inauguration in Taipei on May 20, 2016.
Outgoing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, and President-elect Tsai Ing-wen wave as they prepare for Tsai’s presidential inauguration in Taipei on May 20, 2016.
(Taipei Photojournalists Assn. / Pool / European Pressphoto Agency)

In a sign of the increasing chill in relations between Taiwan and mainland China, Taiwan’s new government has blocked its immediate past president from traveling to Hong Kong amid concerns he might take state secrets to the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

The administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office less than a month ago, on Sunday denied a travel application to former President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma, who was termed out of office after eight years, had been invited to speak at a June 15 award ceremony in Hong Kong by the Society of Publishers in Asia, and he planned to stay in the territory for seven hours.

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During his time in office, Ma, of the Nationalist Party, significantly bolstered ties with mainland China, signing 23 deals on trade, transit and investment, allowing direct flights between the two sides and fostering a tourist industry. But those policies made many Taiwanese nervous that the island was getting too close to Communist-led China.

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Buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor are seen in Hong Kong on May 26, 2016.
Buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor are seen in Hong Kong on May 26, 2016.
(Jerome Favre / European Pressphoto Agency )

The two sides have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province that eventually must be reunified with the mainland, while opinion polls in Taiwan show most islanders prefer autonomy, if not a formal declaration of independence.

Ma is privy to confidential information, including state secrets, and his intended destination was “sensitive,” presidential office spokesman Huang Chung-yen said late Sunday in announcing a six-agency task force’s decision to reject Ma’s travel application.

Tsai appealed to voters ahead of the January election by advocating peaceful dialogue with Beijing without embracing its formulation that both sides belong to “one country.” Ma endorsed that rhetorical framework, and China has pressed Tsai to do the same.

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“The rejection [of Ma’s travel application] is something that will resonate,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of political risk consultancy e-telligence in Taipei. “I don’t think Ma was trying to use or exploit the occasion to do something else.”

Huang said Taiwan had no precedent for this type of travel request.

“The (Taiwan) National Security Bureau has no record of related cooperation with the Hong Kong government and this case was urgent, making it hard to discuss with the mainland China or Hong Kong governments,” Huang said. “Evaluation of this case was based on the importance of the former president toward national security, the unusualness of the case and its sensitivity.”

By law, for three years after stepping down, a former Taiwanese president must seek approval for travel within 15 days of a trip abroad because he or she has had access to confidential information while in office.

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Ma’s office called the travel rejection “not persuasive,” adding that it “disrespected the former head of state” and “could tarnish the international reputation of Taiwan’s freedom and democracy,” according to Taiwan’s semiofficial Central News Agency.

Tsai’s administration may have used the request to mollify hardliners in her Democratic Progressive Party, Wu said. Some DPP members want Taiwan to declare formal independence or believe Ma should be kept in Taiwan in case prosecutors determine he committed crimes while in office. Former Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian served a sentence on graft charges after leaving office in 2008.

Ma’s Nationalist Party accused the Tsai government of a “double standard.”

But Tsai’s administration followed “procedure” without a “political basis,” said Lai I-chung, vice president of Taiwan Thinktank and former head of China policy for the DPP. “Ma is not visiting the United States or the Japan or the U.K.,” Lai said. “He was to visit Hong Kong, and the area is of special concern.”

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Jennings is a special correspondent.

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