Former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last week waded into sensitive waters after being quizzed at a international student forum at National Taiwan University.

Ma spoke at the opening ceremony of The Asian Future Political Leaders Association 10th Forum in Taipei on Aug. 8. The event was attended by college students from Taiwan, China, Japan, and South Korea.

During the Q&A session, a Korean student asked Ma where the capital of Republic of China (ROC) was located. Ma answered, “It’s here. The capital of [the] ROC is Taipei.”

Taiwanese news reports of the event have understandably focused on Ma’s answer, as some people still claim that the capital of the ROC is Nanjing, China. This is due to a provision in the historical constitution General Outline of the Constitution for the Political Tutelage Period of the Republic of China (中華民國訓政時期約法) and the May Fifth Draft Constitution (五五憲草).

The News Lens International (TNLI) interviewed participants and staff from the forum to learn more about what transpired after the question was asked.

According to a forum staff member, the next student to speak after Ma apologized, saying, “I’m also a student from Korea, I apologize for the impolite question that our classmate just asked.”

Jang (a pseudonym), the Korean student who asked the question, told TNLI that he didn’t mean to be rude.

“An East Asia history class that I took taught that the capital of the Republic of China is Nanjing. I just wondered why it is now Taipei. Mr. Ma said the definition of the capital of a country is where the central government is, so now Taipei is the capital of the ROC, and I think it was a good answer for me,” Jang said.

Jang said is wasn’t until the other Korean student apologized that he realized it was a sensitive question.

“I mean, I know there are many sensitive political issues between Taiwan and China, but at that time I didn’t realize that my question would sound like that,” he said.

Most Korean students at the forum thought the question was inappropriate.

“Whether or not Jang was wondering about the capital of ROC, he should have asked the question in another way. I think the way he asked it was far too harsh,” another Korean student told TNLI. “We all know cross-Strait relations are sensitive, so Jang shouldn’t have asked the question at a public event.”

A Chinese college student representing the University of Tokyo at the forum said Jang’s question was "foolish." She agreed with Ma’s statement that the capital is where the central government is, and therefore the capital of the ROC is "definitely Taipei."

“But maybe the Korean student was just curious, so I would not take it seriously,” she said.

Another Chinese student said, “I think the Korean student was just trying to find an answer to his question. That’s all. I don’t think he meant anything more than that.”

The opening ceremony of the forum was also Ma’s first time talking with Chinese students in public after leaving office on May 20. However, according to the staff, the students from China seemed reserved and didn’t ask Ma many questions during the Q&A session. Those who did refused to say anything related to cross-Strait relations.

“In this year’s forum, Chinese students seemed cautious and nervous while speaking,” one of the staff members said. “At the 9th Forum in Tokyo last year, they showed much more passion and discussed the political issues between Taiwan and China.”

One Chinese student, who was willing to be interviewed, said that after the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on May 20, cross-Strait relations have been worsening.

“The key point is that Tsai doesn’t acknowledge the [so-called] 1992 consensus. This has caused discontent with our party [the Chinese Communist Party, CCP], which soon decided to suspend most cross-Strait interactions,” he said. “Also, the Chinese people suspect that Tsai is going to push for Taiwan’s independence, so cross-Strait relations are becoming more tense.”

“I admit there is the ‘agree to differ on the definition' of 'one China' in the 1992 consensus. I think people who do read the 1992 Consensus, and those who really care about this issue, would know the ‘different definition’ part exists. In addition, I think it’s the best way to maintain the 'status quo,'” he said. “But for us, we will never claim so in public. It violates the ideology of [the CCP].”

However, according to the student, most Chinese only accept the “there is only one China” part of the 1992 consensus, and the claim that there are “different definitions” would be seen as a challenge to the CCP's legitimacy.

“That’s why during the Chou Tzu-yu (周子瑜) incident lots of irrational Chinese people were bashing her on the Internet,” he said.

“The party authorities indulge or even encourage this kind of hate speech secretly, aiming to eliminate any possibility of Taiwan independence,” he added.

He also says it is not about whether the ruling party is the Kuomingtang (KMT) or the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“What the CCP really cares about is for the [Taiwanese] leader to acknowledge the 1992 consensus. The Tsai administration should deal with this as soon as possible, or else cross-Strait relations will deteriorate.”

Asked about Ma's attendance at the forum and his speech, the student said it was his honor to meet Ma face to face and that he believes Ma is a "wise politician."

“I think cross-Strait relations eased up a lot during Ma’s presidency,” he said. “He was really good at dealing with international disputes.”

The student said he was a bit surprised when he heard Jang’s question during the Q&A.

“I was afraid that Ma would give some politically incorrect answers. If he did so, then we, the Chinese students, would probably have had to do something to protest against it,” he said. “Fortunately what he said was right. The capital of the ROC is without a doubt where the central government is, so that is Taipei. I think this answer is acceptable to all of us.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White