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Taipei launched its year as the World Design Capital in typical fashion with images of its solitary skyscraper illuminated by fireworks being broadcast around the world. Throughout the year, Taipei will unveil new city icons by international architects, such as the oma-designed Taipei Performing Arts Centre, as it seeks to cement its image as one of east Asia’s most forward-thinking cities.

Yet the biggest changes to Taipei are those you can’t see. Beneath all the bunting and new buildings, subtle shifts in society have helped to turn it into the region’s liberal capital. Residents of the city, mostly ethnically Chinese but culturally influenced by half a century of Japanese rule, enjoy the types of liberties denied to other citizens of the Chinese-speaking world. Openly gay and lesbian candidates stood for office in Taipei in the most recent national elections and the so-called “sunflower” political protests saw students occupy the halls of government in 2014. Citizens are not afraid to speak their minds on sensitive topics such as sexuality and political beliefs. A small community of expats consider the city a well-kept secret.

The man hoping to share that secret with a wider audience is the city’s new mayor, Ko Wen-je, a prominent surgeon who swept into office in 2014 as an independent candidate promising to take a fresh approach to Taiwanese politics.  “Core values like democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, rule of law, care for the underprivileged and a sustainable society are more important than policies,” he says, speaking to monocle in a Chinese-style reception room next to his office at the top of city hall. Any whiff of officialdom, conjured up by the side-by-side seating favoured by Beijing’s top brass, is dispelled by the mayor’s casual attire and bursts of laughter.

Ko’s flagship initiatives so far have been increased transparency and direct democracy: an online voting platform, called i-voting, collects public views on policy issues and committees of experts are asked to suggest candidates for department heads. An emphasis has also been placed on improving Taipei’s cultural scene. “You should be local before being global,” says Ko, who has appointed the director of the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts Hsieh Pei-ni to be his cultural commissioner. “In all the top international cities their unique character is the key: when you go to Tokyo it always feels like you are in Tokyo.” 

The one criticism repeated about Mayor Ko is that he is intent on fixing Taipei rather than improving it: the surgeon-general waits to see what is put in front of him before operating. “Ko is quite pragmatic and places a lot of emphasis on greater efficiency but his public appearance as a progressive can obscure his more conservative personal views,” says Chang Tieh-chih, a political writer and host of a new web-TV show called Talk to Taiwan, whose first guest was the Taipei mayor.

But Ko is applauded for being quick to admit his knowledge gaps, such as on lgbt issues, and for surrounding himself with respected advisers. Ko officiated at a mass wedding last year when same-sex couples took part for the first time since the biannual tradition began in 1973. City hall later applied to Taiwan’s most senior judges for a ruling on whether the ban on same-sex marriages was constitutional. 

Legislation on marriage equality is limited at the municipal level. A bill to legalise same-sex marriage (being gay has never been illegal) has been stalled in the national legislature since 2013. But events on the national stage look to be catching up with Taipei. Incoming president Tsai Ing-wen (see panel opposite), head of the Democratic Progressive party (dpp) and Taiwan’s first female leader, voiced support for same-sex marriage before her election victory at the beginning of the year. Now her supporters would like to see it become the dpp’s official policy. “To be truly progressive we can’t be afraid to come off the fence and have a vision,” says Ashley Wu, a director of Hotline, Taiwan’s oldest lgbt organisation. 

When monocle drops by Hotline it is temporarily in situ inside a church. Alas, even in liberal Taipei, this unlikely union is an exception to the rule. Christians account for less than 5 per cent of Taiwan’s population but well-organised and well-financed church-based organisations provide vocal opposition. A 2013 gathering in support of traditional marriage drew 200,000 people onto the street in Taipei, at least two-and-a-half times more than the record number at the 13th pride march last October. Nevertheless a series of online polls, including one from the Ministry of Justice, show majority support for marriage equality. “Society has become accepting this century,” says Wayne Lin, chair of Hotline.

Jennifer Lu was one of the same-sex couples who took part in the United Wedding ceremony presided over by Mayor Ko. Lu ran as a candidate for the national legislature this year and reports a positive experience of campaigning in Taipei. “When I became a candidate people wanted to talk to me about lgbt issues so we are becoming much more visible,” she says. True, there are still pockets of society in Taipei where traditional Asian values are firmly entrenched. The hierarchical workplace is a particular laggard but Mayor Ko is leading a public stand by encouraging staff at city hall to challenge authority. “I would like to encourage people to disagree,” says Ko, who hopes his civil service changes will create a ripple effect across the capital. 

Ko’s measures often appear small or symbolic − such as halving the size of his office − but the mayor sees his handiwork as part of a much larger operation. “All these little improvements put together will cause a huge leap forward as a whole,” he says. Much will depend on his success in encouraging more entrepreneurship. “In the past, Taipei used to be about mass production; in the future we are focusing on production by the masses. I want to establish an enterprise culture where the private sector can review, evolve and better itself.”

There are some pressing symptoms for the mayor to deal with before he can treat the root cause of the problem, not least an entrenched education system that promotes test scores over creativity. But his first priority should be to reverse the flow of talent leaving Taipei. While a brain drain of young people exits for the US and, increasingly, mainland China – in search of higher wages and better opportunities, business owners and entrepreneurs voice frustration about the difficulties of employing foreign workers. The only sure way of getting a working visa, they joke, is to preach, teach English or marry a Taiwanese person.

If Ko can give fresh life to the capital’s labouring economy he may soon be performing on a bigger stage. Three former mayors of Taipei have gone on to become president of Taiwan, including the outgoing Ma Ying-jeou. In the meantime Ko’s ability to deliver a visible leap forward for Taipei should receive an immediate boost in May when Tsai assumes the national leadership. He has close ties with the dpp and could become a trusted confidant to the new president, who also comes from an academic background and has been elected to public office for the first time. As the mayor looks ahead to the second half of his term and re-election in 2018, next year’s fireworks could usher in a typically loud bang for Taipei.

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