Taiwan's ruling party chief Eric Chu to meet China's Xi Jinping

TAIPEI (AFP) - The head of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang party said on Sunday he plans to meet China's President Xi Jinping next month, in what will be the first visit to the mainland by a KMT chief since 2008.

Eric Chu, who succeeded embattled President Ma Ying-jeou as the party's chairman in January, said "a plan for a meeting of the two party leaders is being arranged" at a May forum in Shanghai with China's communist party.

Details of the meeting have not yet been finalised, he said. Xi heads the communist party in addition to holding the presidency.

Local media said Chu would fly to Shanghai on May 2 and address the forum's opening the next day, adding that he also plans to speak to university students there.

In 2005 Lien Chan made the first trip to the mainland by a KMT chief since the two sides split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

The landmark visit and the ensuing annual forum paved the way for fast-improving relations since Ma came to power in 2008. He was re-elected in 2012.

Ma was also party chairman from 2009-2014, but despite the improved ties he never travelled to the mainland. Wu Po-hsiung was the last KMT chairman to visit the mainland, in 2008.

In June 2010 the two sides signed a trade pact known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, widely seen as the boldest step yet towards reconciliation.

But public sentiment has turned against the Beijing-friendly approach as voters say trade deals have been agreed in secret and not benefited ordinary Taiwanese.

In March last year around 200 students occupied parliament for more than three weeks to demonstrate against a controversial services trade pact, while thousands rallied in support of what became known as the "Sunflower Movement".

The KMT suffered its worst-ever showing in local polls in November - seen as a barometer for presidential elections in 2016 - with its Beijing-friendly policy blamed for alienating many voters.

Despite the setback, Ma said last week ties with China were "back to normal". He insisted that regular government surveys suggested a decline in the number of people who oppose the pace of his cross-strait rapprochement.

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