Wedged between two phalanxes of club-wielding riot police with a small group of protesters waving Nationalist flags Tuesday, it was difficult not to reflect on -- if only fleetingly -- just how far Taiwan had come since martial law was lifted 13 years ago.
Those 13 years have seen a blossoming of native Taiwanese culture and self-identity. And they have culminated in this: the spectacle of Nationalist supporters being doused off the streets of Taipei by water cannons. Not so long ago, it would have been almost unthinkable that supporters of the world's longest-serving and richest party would find themselves battling with police on the streets of Taipei.
But then a week ago in Taiwan, few people imagined that the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian was going to win Saturday's presidential election.
Win he did. Nationalist elements promptly called foul. Their problem was not the election result in itself, but the failure of President and Nationalist Party Chairman Lee Teng-hui to team up with the breakaway independent presidential candidate and man of the people, James Soong. That failure fissured the Nationalist vote and denied what Nationalist Party supporters see as its historic right to rule. Having first lost China, now the Nationalists had lost Taiwan, too.
After days of demonstrations, Lee made a surprise announcement late Thursday afternoon giving in to the crowds' demands that he step down from his position as party chairman. He said he would do so as of Friday. The startling announcement means the party's leadership and its estimated $30 billion in assets are now up for grabs. Many expect that Soong will soon step in to take Lee's place.
For the older generation of Taiwanese, many of whom came over from China, the new sense of place and cultural identity that has emerged with Taiwan's democratization over the past decade has been a slow strangulation of the old Nationalist dream: reunification with China, with the Nationalists running the government. And if the dream has been slowly dying, last Saturday's election was its death knell.
Crowds took little time in assembling and spattering the Nationalist headquarters with eggs (throwing eggs is a traditional Chinese act of protest; when you tell someone to "fuck off" in Chinese you literally tell them to "roll away like an egg") and scrawling anti-Lee Teng-hui graffiti on its walls. "Betrayal" was the word being bandied about on the streets, as protesters denounced Lee. "Mr. Democracy," in their books, is the agent not only of a gradual domestication of the Nationalist agenda but now the disintegration of the Nationalist Party itself.
Soong supporters said Lee had lost on purpose. Like most old-guard Nationalists, Soong is a mainlander, but Lee is a native Taiwanese. Lee's sentiments, the argument ran, were secretly with the pro-independence camp and it was his mission to destroy the party from within. The crowds who have been demonstrating on the streets for three days now want Lee to step down immediately from his position as party chairman. He has promised to step down in September.
"No wonder Lee Teng-hui didn't get a Nobel Peace Prize," screamed a middle-aged woman at me as police jostled us forward through a corridor of Plexiglas shields, the lumbering sound of the water-cannon trucks rolling into position close by. "This isn't peaceful!"
But then, given the occasion, it is perhaps reasonable to wonder whether a completely peaceful transition of power was ever likely. Saturday's election "overturned the heavens," as the Chinese say. Nothing will be quite the same again in Taiwan.
For a 58-year-old protester surnamed Liu and other Nationalist supporters, the end of the Nationalist era in Taiwan is an almost inconceivable event. Lui broke off from screaming, "Step down, Lee" to fling his arms out at the serried ranks of police just feet away from us and shout, "They're just like the Communists!"
This is the party that for decades told the people of Taiwan that it was their destiny to reclaim China. (It was only in 1991 that the Nationalists formally gave up their vow to retake the mainland by force.)
In contemporary Taiwan, the country's claim on China sounds slightly absurd, even a little quaint. But the identity of many of the older generation and of some of their children is still shaped by a fierce sense that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and that its people are Chinese cut off from their roots. Taiwan has many an anecdotal tale of embittered old men who desert their Taiwanese families to return with their savings as "compatriots" to the mainland families they were separated from half a century ago.
Among the chanting crowd outside the barbed wire that now surrounds the Nationalist headquarters, Liu Chin-hua, a cab driver who claims to be a Nationalist Party member of 30 years, says: "Mr. Lee just wants Taiwan to be independent. He hates the Chinese."
Whether such claims are true or not, it's a fact that without Lee the DPP could never have scored the victory it did Saturday. Lee, who took over the leadership of the party in 1988 with Soong's help, has presided over a widespread liberalization of Taiwan society.
The anger on the streets of Taipei about Lee's perceived complicity in what could very well be the imminent collapse of his party is just the tip of the iceberg, as behind the scenes a fratricidal conflict looms over the party's political power and vast wealth. There's fear of China, too.
"We don't want to go to war," a middle-aged man surnamed Chang shouted to me over a tumult of blaring trumpets and chants for Lee to step down. "Our parents and grandparents died in wars. We don't want conflict."
But few people think war is likely -- at least in the short term. The test will be for Chen Shui-bian to remain conciliatory with China and for China to come to terms with a new political order in Taiwan.
To a certain extent the Taipei protests have been tinged with nostalgia, as oldsters break out into renditions of Nationalist-era songs and brandish their Nationalist flags. The Chinese leadership, too, will no doubt feel some nostalgia for its near century-old enemy in the days to come.
The Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalists were at odds with each other for most of the 20th century, but at least they wanted the same thing: to govern all of greater China in their own right. In effect they agreed to disagree under the banner of a reunified China. With the Nationalists dethroned and fractured, China is confronted with a new Taiwan governed by a party that, no matter how conciliatory it sounds, has no truck with the Nationalist dream.
In a poll taken after the elections Saturday, 56 percent of Taiwanese said they were happy with the result. Meanwhile, as I write this at 1 a.m., the protesters (now in the hundreds rather than thousands) continue their standoff with riot police, unable to quite let go.