The presidential election was over. Discarded baseball caps with party insignia still littered the streets of the old city center as municipal workers tore down election posters. For the first time in the history of the Republic of China on Taiwan, such people had voted for their national leader. Taipei buzzed over the March election for quite a while, as though people could not believe what had happened. The three state-run television stations continually broadcast scenes from the victory celebrations of President Lee Teng-hui and his running mate, Lien Chan. Radio talk shows and the 63 cable stations rehashed the results, and callers asked about China's designs on Taiwan, the chances of further democratic change, and the problems of national independence.

Ten years ago, all this would have seemed like a fantasy. Until the mid-1980s Taiwan's authoritarian government ruled by martial law, suppressing dissent and imprisoning opposition activists. But a week before election day, I walked into a restaurant at an expensive hotel, past a sign in English that read, "Please deposit your cellular phone with the hostess," and joined a group that included a dissident writer who had been jailed for more than a decade in Taiwan, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising in the People's Republic of China, and a former speechwriter for Zhao Ziyang, the reformist general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party who was purged in 1989. They were discussing the extent of government corruption in Taiwan, the prospects for Chinese democracy, and the outlook for Taiwanese independence. Not long ago one could have been arrested for such talk.

The trend toward democracy appears to be gathering speed in Asia, especially in countries that were once American client states. While the authoritarian rulers of Burma and China have snuffed out popular demonstrations calling for democracy, a combination of local activism and prodding from Washington has done the trick in South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. However, American pressure on Taiwan to open its political system is different, for the United States does not officially recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state; after President Nixon's 1972 visit to China, the relationship with Taipei cooled, and in 1979 the United States severed diplomatic relations and recognized the People's Republic in its stead. Yet the quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, Taiwanese insistence on national sovereignty lies at the heart of the new democracy. Until the 1990s, both the Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), on Taiwan and the Communists on the mainland claimed to represent the whole of China. They disagreed on everything else, but they shared a commitment to the goal of reuniting the mainland and Taiwan under a single government. This aim gave dictators on both sides of the Taiwan Strait patriotic legitimacy and formed the basis for an alliance of enemies that lasted more than four decades. But now that the Taiwanese have directly elected their own president, who is more committed to the preferences of Taiwan's voters than to the one China envisioned by those of mainland extraction, the alliance is breaking down and Beijing is losing political face. Taiwan has a democracy, while Beijing has nothing but force.

Explaining how Taiwan became a democracy, well-informed people repeat a refrain that can be summed up in four phrases: economic development, a burgeoning middle class, a vibrant civil society, and political reform. Yet the roots of Taiwanese democracy are deeper than the boom that has produced the bulging department stores, the Italian coffee bars, and the nightclubs where people sing Japanese pop songs while gulping down vintage French wines, Chinese style -- all in one go. The most powerful force driving Taiwan's newborn democracy is not a rising standard of living but a peculiar kind of nationalism. It pits those Chinese whose ancestors came to Taiwan over the past several centuries against those who fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949. It sets the vision of an independent Taiwan against the dream of one China. At the core of the nascent democracy is the clash between Taiwan's new nationalists and China's old Nationalists.

A STATE WITHOUT A NATION

Wei Rui-ming is the special assistant to Peng Ming-min, who was the presidential candidate for the largest opposition party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP, formed illegally in 1986 and officially recognized in 1989, has always been in favor of an independent Taiwan. Both Wei and Peng returned to Taiwan just two years ago from exile in the United States to pursue political careers. Peng lost badly, receiving only 21.1 percent of the vote to Lee's 44 percent. Afterward, the DPP chairman, Shih Ming-teh, who had spent 25 years in a Taiwanese jail as a political prisoner, bowed deeply to party supporters and apologized for the result. Wei's office had been Peng's campaign headquarters, and some of the telephones had already been disconnected by the time we met there, a couple of days after the election.

The morning after the election, Wei, a Presbyterian, had sought comfort in church. In 1896 the Japanese, who ruled the island from 1895 to 1945, quashed a Taiwanese rebellion, and some of the survivors found protection in a Presbyterian church. Wei said there were a lot of newly converted Presbyterians that year, including his grandfather. His face creased with a wry little smile, revealing humor as well as defiance. Then, with that same wry look: "There were many crying faces in church yesterday."

Is not the fact that the election took place at all a cause for celebration? Wei's face brightened, and he let out a barking laugh. He first became involved in dissident politics while studying in Japan in the 1960s. His aim then was the independence of Taiwan. It still is. The difference is that people are no longer jailed for promoting that cause. He showed me a small black-and-white photograph of his wife and two children in Tokyo before they returned to Taiwan and he left for New York to study theology. He had wanted them to join him in the United States, but the government had noticed his political activities. His family's exit permits were revoked, and the family -- minus the father -- was stuck in Taiwan under constant surveillance. Wei's family silently blamed him for their sense of abandonment.

While in the United States, Wei saw a movie with Peng about a political prisoner whose daughter tells him she respects his ideals but resents him nonetheless. She wonders why he bothered bringing her into this world if he was willing to devote his life to a cause at the expense of his family. Wei cried in the dark theater and afterward phoned his daughter Kathy in Taiwan to apologize. He did not see her for 15 years, until she was finally allowed to leave Taiwan to study biology in Binghamton, New York. "I am 60 now," Wei said in correct but halting English, "and it has been hard. But I have no regrets. If I were born again, I would do the same thing. I have no choice. I don't know how long I will live, but I'll do my best to convince people to take the future of Taiwan seriously. For to be annexed by China would be a great tragedy for the Taiwanese people."

There was much rejoicing over the Taiwanese election overseas, and not just for the Taiwanese. Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, which advocates democracy for the British territory even after the planned reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, called March 23 "a proud day for all Chinese people around the world." Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, was in Taipei with other political exiles from China, making the rounds of the television talk shows and giving newspaper interviews. She applauded the election, saying it gave courage to the people on the mainland.

Chai was recognized in Taiwan. Young women giggled and asked for her autograph; taxi drivers refused payment. Nevertheless, tension persists between the mainland Taiwanese, who represent roughly 15 percent of the island's population, and many so-called native Taiwanese, whose ancestors arrived on the island before the 1940s. The mainlanders, whom native Taiwanese often call "outside-province people" or, more politely, "latecomers," arrived in large numbers in 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek brought to Taiwan his ragtag army, imperial treasures, and quasi-Leninist party, the Kuomintang.

Until a few years ago, statues of Chiang were prominently displayed in front of almost every public building in Taiwan. KMT rule was so heavy-handed that Taiwanese of the older generation were discreetly nostalgic for the Japanese period. The Japanese had made Taiwan into a model colony, years ahead of China in technology, infrastructure, and education. Under the Japanese, Taipei was more modern than most Japanese cities; Japanese planners could do what they liked there, unhindered by the regulations that held them back at home. But then, many Taiwanese will tell you, the KMT ruined everything with its undisciplined soldiers, corrupt officials, and absurd dream of taking back China.

Taiwanese complain that they have a state but no nation. A DPP campaigner who had spent more than ten years in jail for advocating Taiwanese independence asserted that the dissidents in China do not really want democracy; their primary aim is a Chinese empire, led by a new Mao or Chiang. Unfair perhaps, but an opinion that is widely shared. Taiwan's democracy is laced with a defensive nativism, defensive not only toward the People's Republic, but toward all Chinese whose grandparents were not born on Taiwan. President Lee, himself a Taiwanese who grew up under the Japanese Empire, exploits this rift in Taiwan's politics and society, which is why so many voted for him and why many mainlanders resent him for taking over "their" KMT.

MAKE MONEY, NOT POLITICS

"Welcome, welcome, how can we help you? I was a political prisoner for almost 20 years." The day before the election, standing in the DPP campaign headquarters in Kaohsiung, the biggest city in the southern part of the island, the heartland of native Taiwanese sentiment, I was greeted by Huang Hua, the local DPP campaign manager. Huang laid out the party's case. I had heard it before, but rarely expressed so succinctly: "We always said that the KMT's aim of recovering the mainland was nonsense. If you want democracy in Taiwan, you must recognize everyone's civil rights as Taiwanese citizens. That means an independent nation." He invited me to join him at the final DPP rally before election day.

That evening I spotted him through a haze of smog and exhaust spewed out by the fleet of taxis, private cars, and even the odd tractor that was waiting to take everyone to the rally. Huang, sporting a DPP baseball cap bearing the party symbol of a blue whale in the shape of Taiwan, instructed me to get into one of the taxis, where I was joined by a young woman, tall, thin, a little overexcited. Her name was Kathy Wei. In fast, fluent American English, she described her student days in Binghamton and her married life in Dallas and Los Angeles, where she worked for a Chinese-language radio station. She told me about her confrontation in the United States with emigrants from communist China. They had a negative attitude toward work, she averred. They would say: Why work hard? They'll only give us more work if we finish. Kathy did not want to be "infected" with such attitudes. She felt different. She was Taiwanese.

We stopped off at a supermarket on the way, and a young man lugging cardboard boxes freed one hand, thumped his chest, and shouted at me in passing: "I am Taiwanese. Taiwan man. China no good." It is the kind of thing one rarely hears in such explicit language in Taipei. In the south, however, one hears it all the time. Kathy explained that Taipei is the capital of the mainlanders: "Most of the best jobs there are reserved for mainlanders. We feel very different down here."

The KMT, said to be the richest political party in the world, had booked the main sports stadium for that night. It takes a lot of money to bus in thousands of students and members of civic organizations and farmers associations to attend a party rally. It takes still more to pay for pop stars in silver lamé suits and flamenco dancers to entertain the crowd between speeches. Even so, the atmosphere at the KMT gathering later that night was listless: rows of silent people in identical baseball caps, fluttering their flags when the agitated emcee on stage so directed.

The DPP rally was held in a small, sandy park. There was no show to amuse party supporters while they waited for Peng's arrival. People streamed in from all directions, waving green-and-white party banners. Kathy Wei was hopping with wiry energy. We were soon surrounded by men who were keen to give us their views. They were poorly dressed, one had no front teeth, another was in his undershirt. Some were factory workers, some worked as stevedores in Kaohsiung harbor, others were unemployed. The man with no front teeth held forth angrily about KMT corruption, how it shamed all Taiwanese. He spoke of vote-buying, gangsters, and the KMT city councilor in Kaohsiung who had had another councilor killed. Another man, one of the stevedores, spoke of his daughter, who attends night school. He wanted her to have a better education than he. But she was not there with him, for her teachers had insisted she attend the KMT rally. "Write the truth about Taiwan," said the toothless man. "Now we are free to speak the truth. That is why we are voting for Dr. Peng. He fought for our freedom."

When Peng arrived, surrounded by bodyguards in black flak jackets and baseball caps, it was already getting dark, and the stage lights barely penetrated the swirls of dust. Peng looked professorial, an owlish man in glasses. He gave a tired smile but was clearly ill at ease in the midst of a cheering mob. Kathy Wei was jumping up and down, waving her green-and-white flag. On stage were Peng, the local DPP candidates for the National Assembly, the bodyguards, and her father, Wei Rui-ming. Her eyes were moist. "This is the best day of my life," she said softly, "the best day of my life."

The next day, in a hotel coffee shop, Kathy told me more about her family and her childhood in Taiwan. Her grandfather had been a schoolteacher during Japanese rule. Like all educated people of his generation, he spoke fluent Japanese; in 1945 many Taiwanese thanked American troops in Japanese for liberating them from Japan. But in accordance with the 1943 Cairo Declaration, the United States turned Taiwan over to the Chinese Nationalist government. The Nationalists maintained Japan's colonial institutions, substituting mainlanders for the Japanese, and exploited the island's resources and labor to rebuild the war-torn mainland. Tensions between the native Taiwanese and their new rulers boiled over on February 28, 1947, when Nationalist troops crushed anti-KMT demonstrations. A terror campaign against students, intellectuals, political activists, and anyone else who might cause trouble followed. The massacres were particularly brutal in Kaohsiung.

For a long time terror had the desired effect: the survivors never wanted to be involved in politics again. Like the Chinese after 1989, the native Taiwanese were bought off by the chance to make money. They turned to commerce, and KMT officials governed, their authority largely unchallenged. Those who continued their political activities were widely viewed as troublemakers, and even their own families blamed them for causing unnecessary hardship. The scars of the "28 February Incident" did not heal quickly; for many years it could not be mentioned in public. Recently, a park in central Taipei was named after the event, yet another sign of how much has changed.

Like the Communist Party in China, the KMT tried to control everything on Taiwan, especially education. Moral education meant instruction in KMT ideology -- a mixture of Chinese chauvinism, military discipline, and worship of Chiang's family. History meant the history of China, not Taiwan. Kathy Wei remembers the day she was asked at school to sign up for the KMT, an act most did without thinking. For her, it was a terrifying moment. Nervous and angry, she ran from the classroom and locked herself in her dormitory. She never signed. Why had she risked ostracism? Was it loyalty to her father? She thought for a moment. "No," she said, "I guess it was more out of loyalty to Taiwan."

THE COCKTAIL OF IDENTITIES

Taiwanese speak a Chinese dialect that is incomprehensible to a speaker of Mandarin, or standard, Chinese. In Taipei, where most mainlanders live, one hears mostly Mandarin, but in Kaohsiung, one hears little but Taiwanese. During election week, my hotel in Taipei, owned by a Cantonese businessman, felt like the center of the overseas Chinese world. Legislators from the Hong Kong Democratic Party stayed there. The Beijing dissidents were there. And Chinese-American supporters of the New Party, a breakaway faction of the KMT that vigorously opposes Taiwanese independence, were there as well.

Before the election I had breakfast with two American members of the New Party, Gloria Chen and David Chien, and Chai Ling, the Chinese student leader. Like most New Party members, Chen and Chien's families are from the mainland. Chen launched into a speech about the need to teach the Taiwanese about democracy. "Just because you have elections," she explained, "that doesn't mean you have democracy. The local people here don't know what they want. They are so easily manipulated. We were lucky enough to learn about democracy in the States, so we want to teach the local people about democracy." Chien nodded in agreement. "You see," he said, "most Chinese who moved to the States are intellectuals. So we treat politics more rationally." Why had they left the KMT? Speaking at the same time, Chen and Chien repeated the complaints of DPP supporters: corruption, gangsters, the murder case in Kaohsiung. At this point Chai Ling said in flawless American English, "Surely there is reason for the Taiwanese to be proud of their democratic elections." This gave rise to a heated discussion with Chien, half in English, half in Chinese. As I struggled to follow their arguments, Chen poked me and said that President Lee is very irresponsible. He is needlessly provoking China, and, moreover, Japan is manipulating him. Didn't I know that his Japanese is better than his Chinese and that he reads the Japanese papers every day?

Chai looked at her watch, broke off her argument with Chien, and said, "Gee, I've got to go. Well, David, Gloria, I want you to know I respect your party and your views and want to thank you for a really useful exchange of ideas. Have a nice day." It felt a long way from Tiananmen Square, where she had once led a popular rebellion armed with only a megaphone. Later, at dinner, she told me how intimidated she had felt when China experts from the West told her that the Chinese were not ready for democracy. There is indeed something offensive about Chinese-Americans telling the Taiwanese that they do not know what they want. There is an element of peevishness in the response of New Party mainlanders and some China hands to the struggle for democracy in China and Taiwan, as though less-exalted people were stealing the intellectuals' right to define what the two countries should be.

Gangsterism, vote-buying, and pork barrel are indeed part of the new Taiwan. When a notorious gangster was murdered in February, most of the political elite in Taipei, including a Buddhist presidential candidate who advocates moral purity, turned up for the funeral. But these are the consequences of the democratic transition. Now that people must run for office, local bosses thrive: they have the connections, and the KMT has the money. While the DPP is still led mostly by intellectuals, the KMT is slowly being transformed from a quasi-Leninist party of soldiers and bureaucrats into a party of businesspeople. And the businesspeople, like the president, are usually native Taiwanese. Listening to critics of Lee Teng-hui in the KMT and the New Party, one detects nostalgia for government by political appointees from solid mainland stock.

Part of Lee's genius is his ability to evade easy definition. He is a Christian, educated in Japan and the United States, a Taiwanese national hero, and the leader of the bastion of mainlander power. Waiting for Lee to turn up at a temple for a campaign event, I spoke with a group of legislators from Hong Kong who were in Taiwan observing the elections. They expressed ambivalence about what they had seen: they were amused by the coarse ways of the Taiwanese, but they were also envious of the new democracy. One of the legislators, Christine Loh, related a story about an elderly Lee supporter she had met in a small town in central Taiwan. The man was in awe of the president. While he himself needed to go to the bathroom at least once an hour, the president, an old man like him, could hold it for hours and hours. What a leader! What a man! As we laughed, the large red doors to the temple courtyard swung open. "These doors are used only for the emperor," said a smiling man in a track suit. In came the bodyguards in their standard uniform, black flak jackets, carrying briefcases. And through the cheering crowd and clouds of incense I made out the president, a tall, grinning figure in a baseball cap, waving to all sides.

Once he reached the inner sanctum of the temple, he bowed curtly to the Chinese gods, turned around to face the crowd, and grabbed the microphone. Unlike the owlish Peng, Lee looked like a politician, exuding the glad-handing bonhomie of a Lyndon Johnson. Speaking in Taiwanese, he was hoarse from campaigning. His statement was brief: "For the first time in 5,000 years of Chinese and 50 years of Taiwanese history, people are choosing their own boss. Two days from now you will be master of your president. But the highest boss is God." Is Lee Christian, Taiwanese, or Chinese? He is all of these. But there are two more ingredients in this cocktail of identities, without which neither Lee nor Taiwanese democracy can properly be understood: Japan and the United States.

SELECTIVE XENOPHOBIA

Many traces of the Japanese Empire remain in Taiwan. Taipei has more prewar municipal Japanese architecture -- red-brick buildings in a faintly Prussian style -- than Tokyo, and residential streets are still dotted with wooden Japanese houses. Taiwanese still take their shoes off indoors in the Japanese manner. Taiwanese is full of Japanese words, and many Taiwanese have Japanese names and enjoy watching Japanese films and singing Japanese songs. Until just a few years ago, such entertainment was officially restricted, for the KMT saw affection for Japan as a threat to the order they had imposed. That is why mainlanders criticize Lee's habit of reading Japanese newspapers: it casts doubt on his loyalty to China and thus to the KMT.

Stephen Lee, a well-known human rights lawyer born in Kaohsiung in 1941, spoke Japanese at home while growing up. He noted, "We had many Japanese influences, some good, some bad -- mostly good." Japanophilia is so rare in Asia that I was slightly taken aback. But then he added, "You see, we are more honest than the mainlanders. Most members of the mainlander ruling class were corrupt. That's why they came here. They still don't identify with Taiwan."

Japanophilia, then, is an act of defiance, a way of thumbing one's Taiwanese nose at mainlander dominance in the political system. The way some Taiwanese talk about mainlander Chinese verges on bigotry. Mark Chen is a charming, polished DPP politician who spent 19 years in Washington, lobbying congressmen for help in bringing democracy to Taiwan. Would he want Taiwan to unite with a democratic China? He began his answer by talking about Japan. Japan, he said, provided Taiwan with a good, honest government, but "Chinese culture changed all that." The Taiwanese were happy to unite with the motherland in 1945, but the mainlanders "raped our females and killed our friends and fathers. So history tells us that we can never believe Chinese promises. They are tricky people. So even if they have a democracy over there, we are still better off if we remain separate."

For native Taiwanese, the United States, like Japan, is a way to distance Taiwan from China. Chen returned to the island in 1994 and became the first elected DPP governor of a county. In his office in the county capital of Tainan, he showed me a photograph of himself and Peng with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Despite his party's poor showing, Chen was pleased with the way things turned out: "What we are doing here in Taiwan is consistent with the ideals of the American founding fathers."

Many Taiwanese were educated in Japan and the United States. Modern ideas about science, economics, and politics often first came to Taiwan through Japanese books. The Taiwanese are sometimes xenophobic, but not when it comes to Westerners or Japanese -- only toward Chinese mainlanders. When asked whether they approved of the U.S. decision to send two carrier groups to the seas near Taiwan after China conducted several missile tests just off the island's coast in the days leading up to the election, workers in Kaohsiung held up their thumbs in approval and shouted, "Good! Good! Thank you! Thank you!" Few Taiwanese seem to doubt that the U.S. naval action in March and a similar response in December helped their cause in the face of aggressive Chinese behavior. It was, in the words of Mark Chen, "a shot in the arm of the Taiwanese people." And without China's belligerence and the U.S. show of support, Lee would not have received so many votes.

The United States began to exert pressure on behalf of Taiwanese democracy around 1984, in the wake of the murder of Henry Liu, a journalist, in San Francisco. Liu, an American citizen, had written a biography of Chiang Kai-shek's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo. The book contained enough dirt on the Chiang dynasty to worry the KMT government. Taiwanese gangsters did the actual killing, but the order is said to have come from the state security police led by Chiang Ching-Kuo's son, Hsiao-wu. In quick succession, the Taiwanese government compensated Liu's widow, President Ronald Reagan pressured the KMT to start democratic reform, and in 1986 Congress warned Taiwan that if it did not lift martial law, its relationship with the United States would suffer. When the DPP was formed that year, Chiang Ching-Kuo did not crack down, and martial law came to an end the following year.

LEADER WORSHIP GONE STALE

Chiang Ching-kuo, who was originally a hard-liner, recognized as early as the 1970s that the mainlanders could not rule Taiwan alone. He put Lee Teng-hui in charge of agriculture in 1972, named him mayor of Taipei in 1978, and appointed him vice president in 1985. When Chiang died in 1988, Lee was just the man the KMT needed to preserve its rule over Taiwan. As a native of the island, he could overcome Taiwanese resentment of the KMT. But Lee's KMT would be different from the party his predecessors had led. He once told a Japanese interviewer that the KMT had been an "alien regime." Lee tried to transform the KMT into a Taiwanese party by implementing ideas that had first been promoted, at great personal cost, by opposition activists. He did not publicly admit it, but he shared the dip’s view that national sovereignty and democracy went together. He released political prisoners, freed the press from censorship, and rid the legislature of the old, often wheelchair-bound Nationalists who still represented mainland Chinese provinces in the increasingly absurd hope of reclaiming them one day. He urged the direct election of the president, which finally came to pass in March. And in his inaugural address following his reelection by the National Assembly in 1990, Lee called for "full academic, cultural, economic, trade, scientific, and technological exchanges" between the People's Republic and Taiwan, implicitly recognizing the People's Republic and abandoning Taiwan's claim to represent all of China.

Lee's reforms have not gone over well with many KMT members. Wei Yung, a senior figure in the party, the president of a private think tank, and a professor of political science, expressed impatience with the provincialism of the local Taiwanese. Wei called for "returning to the status quo ante," a reference to the one-China policy of the mainlander-dominated KMT of the past. Lee, in his view, had "changed the game plan." By "localizing" politics, by instigating what Wei calls "authoritarian populism," Lee had betrayed the ideals of the Republic of China on Taiwan, the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps even the Republican Revolution of 1911.

But Wei has bigger dreams. The Republic of China, he said, "is a transitional state. Our mission is not complete." The mission is, of course, to create one China. Lee's Taiwan is no longer a temporary platform for a grand goal, but a cramped little island -- or rather several cramped little islands -- populated by Taiwanese-speaking folk with rustic manners. Wei's manners are not rustic, but they do betray an irritating swagger. He is proud of his calligraphy, which decorates the walls of his modern office; his pieces "go for very high prices," he assured me. Men like Wei feel left out of the new KMT, and many have joined the New Party. It is easy to dismiss them as reactionaries whose time has passed. But there is a strand in their thinking that is harder to dismiss: the connection with Chinese dissidents and democrats outside Taiwan.

President Lee's government reacted to the events of Tiananmen Square with extreme caution. Taiwanese in general, even students, were oddly detached, as though the clamor for democracy and the subsequent repression across the strait did not really concern them. The exiles from Beijing were welcomed everywhere in the West, including the White House, but they did not receive an audience with Lee. Lesser-known political refugees who escape to Taiwan are routinely returned to the Chinese authorities. Taiwan makes no provision for those who would seek political asylum. Wei Yung finds it disgraceful. His voice rose in indignation: "I was so ashamed in 1989 that I resigned as president of the party cadre school. We promised to support the anticommunist movement. Why has Lee Teng-hui refused to receive democratic fighters? At least the asylum-seekers should have been allowed in. No guts, no principles."

Taiwan cannot do much to help the cause of democracy in China. But there is a clash of interests here, which Lee Teng-hui appears to be winning. On one side are those who want a democratic Taiwan for the Taiwanese, and on the other are those who wish for a greater China for the Chinese, albeit on Taiwan's terms. This is not just a question of nativist provincials versus Chinese cosmopolitans. Not all Taiwanese are provincial, and the advocates of one China can be equally chauvinistic. The clash is over political authority on Taiwan. Without the pretense of representing the whole of China, the latecomers from the mainland have no special right to rule. And the Taiwanese have an irrefutable argument: a sovereign people cannot exist without a sovereign state.

Lee will continue to press for international recognition of Taiwan's independence without claiming it so loudly that Beijing resorts to force. And Beijing will keep the heat on Taipei, because otherwise it cannot rouse the nationalist fervor that has replaced communism as China's unifying force. Even as Beijing attempts to intimidate Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui's KMT will go on dismantling the laws, institutions, and propaganda that kept the mainlanders in power in Taipei and their dreams of reclaiming China alive. The statues and busts of Chiang Kai-shek have largely disappeared, and lessons in KMT ideology are treated about as seriously in Taiwan as Marxism is in China. As I was repeatedly told in Taiwan, by some in delight and by others in anger, the old myths are rapidly fading.

One of the main shrines to the old KMT, and certainly the grandest, is Memorial Hall in central Taipei. It is a gigantic temple built in the Chinese style, even bigger than the neoclassical edifice that contains Mao Zedong's embalmed remains. The sacred site sits atop a seemingly endless flight of steps, and there a huge bronze statue of Chiang is enthroned, like a faintly smiling Buddha, in a vast marble chamber. Below, in a vault, the legendary history of the generalissimo is portrayed in pictures and documents. His mother, Madame Wang, is revered as "a great exemplar of Chinese motherhood" who "early instilled in him [her son] all the virtues traditional to the Chinese race."

The last time I visited Memorial Hall, in the 1980s, I saw processions of schoolchildren and soldiers, all in their various uniforms, climbing the steps. Even then I detected some giggling and chattering irreverence, but the stale air of leader worship still permeated the place. This time I saw one or two couples on their honeymoon being photographed with their backs not to the hall but to the traditional gardens outside. Children dashed about on skateboards, making a lot of noise. And in the hall of worship itself, I saw a few tourists, mostly young Japanese in shorts, sneakers, and T-shirts. One of them, a young woman, pointed at the bronze generalissimo and wondered who he was. "A famous writer?" her friend offered. "No," said another, without a hint of humor, "it's the last emperor."

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  • Ian Buruma has published widely on Asia. His most recent book is The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War Between East and West.
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