President Xi is known for his ruthless authoritarianism and ambition, but when Ma Ying-jeou met him he discovered that the Chinese leader also had a taste for poetry.
Ma, 72, was the president of Taiwan at the time, the democratic self-ruling island that China claims as its own and threatens to take by force. The strait that divides the island from the mainland has long been clouded by the threat of invasion and war.
When Ma talked to Xi in 2015 he was the first Taiwanese leader to meet a Chinese president face to face. In a subtle spirit of flattery, but also warning, he recited an ancient poem about the tragedy of war. "To rout the foe at hazard of their lives/Five thousand soldiers sank into the sand," the Tang dynasty poet Chen Tao wrote. "Their skulls unburied by the river's strand/They live on in the dreams of weeping wives."
Ma told The Times: "Xi Jinping knew the poem. We had both learnt it when we were young. We recited it together - so you see, we have some things in common, we can communicate with one another. This gives me confidence that we can continue the process."
The sensitive, literary side of Xi, 70, is not one that has been obvious in the eight years since that meeting, and the prospect of butchered soldiers and weeping families appears closer now than ever. Xi, then three years in power, is now into an unprecedented third term, and he has established himself as the most menacing and uncompromising Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
Ma, from the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party in Taiwan, left office in 2016. His successor, Tsai Ing-wen, 66, of the Democratic People's Party (DPP), has enraged the Chinese government by emphasising Taiwan's independence from the mainland. After the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, fewer and fewer of Taiwan's people think of themselves as Chinese, or hold out any wish for "reunification".
Governments in the United States, Japan and Europe have warned against any attempt to take Taiwan by force; China retorts angrily that the issue is a domestic, internal matter. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted increasingly aggressive air and sea exercises in the Strait, even firing missiles over the island after Nancy Pelosi, the senior US congresswoman, visited Taipei in August last year.
For Ma and a significant number of Taiwanese it is a disastrous state of affairs, and one which is at the centre of campaigning for the presidential election to be held in January, when Tsai will be replaced after serving her limit of two four-year terms. The KMT, whose candidate, Hou Yu-ih, is competing against the DPP vice-president, William Lai, insists that it is a choice between "war and peace".
Ma said: "In my term of office no country believed that there would be war between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. It is the DPP government's adoption of misguided policies that has brought Taiwan to the brink."
Taiwan was a backwater until 1949, when the nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek retreated there after its defeat on the mainland by Mao's communists. A lifetime later, the island is a rich and thriving democratic society; for all intents and purposes, the Taiwanese inhabit an independent country.
This has never been declared formally, however; instead, under an arrangement known as the "1992 Consensus", the two sides agreed that there is one China, but agreed to disagree on who is its rightful government.
The idea of tiny Taiwan taking over mighty China has long been a ludicrous fantasy. But with Beijing's suppression of democratic opposition in Hong Kong, more and more Taiwanese also object to the notion that their island could ever come under communist control. The DPP government has refused to acknowledge the Consensus ? and without this, China refuses to talk to it, and makes increasingly menacing threats to achieve its goal by force.
To the DPP, the only logical response is to bolster Taiwan's military defences, and President Biden has become the first US leader to say explicitly that the US would defend the island if it had to.
"To deter conflict is the real issue," said Wang Ting Yu, a DPP MP. "Democracies around the world must deliver a clear signal to Xi: if you use military force, we will fight you, you'll fail and the price will be the loss of your power."
The counter-argument is that while Taiwan must be ready to defend itself, preparing for war without also talking about peace is more likely to provoke Xi than to deter him.
"I see chances for dialogue," said Ma, who oversaw an unprecedented boom in cross-Strait trade under his presidency. "I see the chances for peaceful coexistence. We don't need to provoke the other side all the time to show how loyal we are to Taiwan. That makes no sense."
For all his talk of poetry recitals, Ma is not naive about Xi's intentions.
"For those who are familiar with Chinese history, to go from division to unification takes years, perhaps hundreds of years," he said. "What people want most is peace, prosperity and stability. It doesn't have to come with unification, and that can't be achieved in a short period of time."
Alexander Huang, head of international affairs for KMT, goes further. "Dialogue is not an end in itself, it's a tool," he said. "We buy time. Beijing wants to end the game, DPP wants to quit the game. KMT's position is to make the game infinite."
The problem is Xi, who gives no sign of being prepared to wait hundreds of years. His third term will end in 2027, which is also the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. Xi has promised a "rejuvenation of the Chinese nation", which many take to include taking control of Taiwan, by the centenary of the communist victory in 2049. He has promised not to pass the problem endlessly from one generation to the next.
"It's a risk to assume that China or Xi Jinping will change," said Vincent Chao, a spokesman for Lai, the DPP presidential candidate. "The presumption has misled the world for the past three or four decades, the idea that China will conform to our expectations. The KMT wants to restart dialogue and take a more conciliatory cross-Strait approach. But the long term calculus for Xi Jinping doesn't change: reunification is the only result he'll be satisfied with."
- 文章轉載至自英國媒體「The Times」專訪 "‘Misguided’ Taiwan fuelling China’s aggression, says ex-president Ma" by Richard Lloyd Parry