Ma was born in Hong Kong, then a British colony. When he was a year old, his family, supporters of the Kuomintang (KMT), fled to Taiwan making him part of the Mainlander subgroup on Taiwan. He earned a law degree from National Taiwan University in 1972, then proceeded to earn a doctorate in law from Harvard University in the United States. He returned to Taiwan in 1981 to teach law.
He was deputy secretary-general of the KMT from 1981 to 1988, for some time also serving as head of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), a cabinet-level body in charge of cross-straits relations. President Lee Teng-hui appointed him Justice Minister in 1993. He was relieved of his post in 1996, reputedly because he proved too effective at fighting black gold political corruption within his own party. Ma then returned to academia, and most people at the time believed his political career to be finished.
However in 1998, the KMT, faced with no other credible candidates, did field him to challenge Chen Shui-bian of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was seeking reelection as mayor of Taipei. His honest, clean-cut image (and good looks) helped win him 51% of the vote. In the 2000 Presidential Election, Ma remained loyal to the Kuomintang and supported its candidate Lien Chan over James Soong who had bolted from the party. The split between Lien and Soong allowed his former rival Chen Shui-bian to win the election. This combined with Soong's good showing and Lien's poor showing caused a great deal of anger against Ma, as evidenced by one famous scene in which he was pelted with rotten eggs from KMT supporters.
Ma was able to repair this damage and in December 2002, Ma became the superstar of the KMT by easily winning reelection with the support of 64% of Taipei voters, while his DPP challenger Lee Ying-yuan received only 36 percent. His solid victory, especially in light of opposition from both President Chen Shui-bian and former President and KMT Chairman Lee Teng-hui, led many to speculate about his chances as the KMT candidate for the 2004 presidential elections, although this proved unfounded.
Ma suffered some political damage as a result of the SARS epidemic in early 2003 and was criticized for not mobilizing the Taipei city government quickly enough.
He is married with two daughters and an avid jogger.
See also: Politics of Taiwan