By Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang
TAOYUAN, Taiwan (Reuters) -Taiwan's ex-President Ma Ying-jeou became on Monday the first sitting or former Taiwanese leader to visit mainland China since the Communist revolution in 1949, saying he hoped to bring about peace and improve relations.
Ma's office said he was met at Shanghai's Pudong airport by officials including Chen Yuanfeng, deputy head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office. The visit has been criticised by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of Ma's successor Tsai Ing-wen.
Speaking to reporters before leaving from Taiwan's main international airport at Taoyuan, Ma, 73, said he was "very happy" to be going on a trip where he will talk to students and pay respects to the graves of his ancestors in China.
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.
The trip comes at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and Taipei as China keeps up military and political pressure to try and get democratic Taiwan to accept Chinese sovereignty.
"Apart from going to make offerings to my ancestors, I am also taking Taiwan university students to the mainland for exchanges with them, hoping to improve the current cross-strait atmosphere through the enthusiasm and interaction of young people, so peace can come even faster and sooner to us here," Ma said in short remarks.
Taiwan's ruling DPP criticised Ma for going on Monday, saying it was inappropriate given former long-time Taiwan ally Honduras had ended ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing the day before.
Ma is a senior member of Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which favours close ties with China although it strongly denies being pro-Beijing. The KMT says outreach to China is needed now more than ever given the tensions across the Taiwan Strait.
Ma met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in late 2015 shortly before Tsai was elected.
China has rebuffed Tsai's repeated calls for talks, believing her to be a separatist. She says only Taiwan's people can decide their future.
Ma is not scheduled to meet any senior Chinese officials while there, but the head of his foundation said last week Ma will be "at his host's disposal" if they do arrange such a get-together.
Both supporters and opponents were at the airport for Ma's departure. Demonstrators from the pro-independence group Taiwan Republic Office were allowed to show banners inside the airport for only a brief period before being pushed out by police.
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Peter Graff)