TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan lives in the shadow of its much larger, more powerful and aggressive neighbor — one that never hesitates to remind it exactly how much larger and powerful it is.

The threat of China permeates much of political life in this island democracy, and right now it looms large. On Monday, Taiwan inaugurates its fifth democratically elected president, who won the top job in January: Lai Ching-te, the vice president under Tsai Ing-wen.

Chinese leaders in Beijing have long refused to deal with Lai because of his past position on Taiwanese independence: He was once a scrappy advocate for Taiwanese independence, although he is now a key proponent of the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) efforts to maintain peace with Beijing while repelling its aggression.

The Chinese Communist Party in Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory, even though it’s never ruled the island, and says it will take Taiwan by military force if necessary. It is expected to ramp up intimidation as Lai takes office.

But beyond the geopolitical tensions, a vibrant democratic society of 23 million people has blossomed — a development that irks Beijing beyond measure because it clearly shows that democracy and Chinese culture are in fact highly compatible.

NEW TAIPEI CITY,TAIWAN – AUGUST 16: People gathering for a free fireworks display in the Sanchong District of New Taipei City. August 16, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for the Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
NEW TAIPEI CITY,TAIWAN – AUGUST 16: People gathering for a free fireworks display in the Sanchong District of New Taipei City. August 16, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for the Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

Here in Taiwan, just 100 miles across the sea from China, seemingly competing influences come together. Taipei, the capital, buzzes with an energy both chaotic and orderly as 2.6 million people go about their lives.

It’s a cacophony of motorcycles, karaoke, day markets and night markets, life in perpetual motion.

As the day begins, elderly residents perform tai chi in the city’s many parks or visit wet markets. At the other end of the day, tourists and young people saunter through shopping districts and night markets, sometimes spilling out of karaoke bars in the early-morning hours.

The drag queen, Bagel Rim, of the House of Wind, making her entrance during the drag at Fu Yong Gong temple in the Beitou District of Taipei. October 21st, 2023 Taipei, Taiwan An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN -OCT 10: Celebration for the National Day of The Republic of China, also known as 10/10 day, in front of the Presidential Palace, celebrating the Wuchang Rebellion which would lead to the Nationalist overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Taipei, Taiwan. October 10th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – SEPTEMBER 17: Commuters on the Taoyuan MRT, that connects Taipei to Taoyuan City and the airport. September 17th, 2023 (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

In between, people eat lunch at outdoor tables and zip around on scooters, the preferred mode of transport for half of Taiwan’s adults. Other commuters crowd into the city’s extensive subway system.

Modern skyscrapers and sprawling apartment complexes abut temples that are neighborhood gathering places, especially during raucous election seasons. Slaking off its colonial and authoritarian past, its elections feel like weeks-long street parties. It was the first place in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage and has an energetic drag season. And Taiwan loves its baseball with a passion that makes the scene at Yankee Stadium look sleepy.

A love of ‘frozen garlic’

Much of this is done in a distinctly Taiwanese way, which is often to say: cute.

That even extends to the presidential office. Few embody Taiwan’s affection for cuteness better than its outgoing president Tsai, who fills her social media with photos of her adopted cats and dogs, and even donned cat ears for public events. Even at serious military parades, one can see floats depicting F-16 fighter jets as adorable, bubbly planes soaring above cheerful cartoon clouds.

Visitors marvel at the polite orderliness of residents used to picking up after themselves: During a campaign rally ahead of the presidential election in January, the main boulevard in front of the president’s office was packed with thousands of people. Within half an hour after the event, all the plastic stools were stacked neatly to the side and the ground cleared of litter.

TAIPEI,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 10: An audience member at a concert event of a group of young Democratic Progressive Party legislative candidates, called, The Generation. Taipei, Taiwan. December 10th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 10: Former legislator, and lead singing of the Death metal band Chthonic, performing at a concert event of a group of young Democratic Progressive Party legislative candidates, called, The Generation. Taipei, Taiwan. December 10th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 10: An Audience member holding up a cellphone sign, in support of DPP legislative candidate Justin Wu, at a concert event of a group of young Democratic Progressive Party legislative candidates, called, The Generation. Taipei, Taiwan. December 10th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

Taiwan’s presidential election campaigns are quite a spectacle: a mix between a nationwide pop concert and a street party, complete with dancers and cheerleaders. People grow hoarse shouting “dong suan” — Taiwanese for “get elected” — which also sounds like the term “frozen garlic” in Mandarin. It feels like everyone from young parents with kids to elderly residents is on the street lobbying for their preferred candidate for the four weeks of the election campaign.

At one concert held to stir up support for young DPP candidates vying for the legislature, former parliamentarian and current metalhead Freddy Lim performed with the Buddhist death metal band Dharma.

Democratic Progressive Party Presidential candidate, Lai Ching Te, marching at the Taiwan Pride Parade. Taipei, Taiwan. October 28th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu/ for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 23: Supporters of the Kuomintang, the opposition party in Taiwan, at a rally for the Kuomintang Presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih. Taipei, Taiwan. December 23rd, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 9: Campaigners for Ko Wen-Je, of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), campaigning in the Zhongshan District. Taipei, Taiwan. December 9th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

Ahead of the January election, candidates such as Hsieh Tzu-han, running for the DPP in Taichung, cruised neighborhoods, strapped onto the back of pickup trucks, blasting slogans and music from loudspeakers. The streets were emblazoned with huge posters exhorting residents to support a multitude of candidates.

Taiwan’s democracy is a young but vibrant one. It held its first full election in 1992, five years after martial law was lifted. Today, Taiwanese citizens are known for being dedicated voters, with many expats flying home to cast their ballots. This year, voter turnout was 72 percent.

Rainbow pioneer

Taiwan has long been seen as a leader on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, considered one of the most progressive, LGBTQ-friendly places in Asia. School textbooks extol equality, and gays and lesbians serve openly in the military.

Taiwanese often attribute the relatively tolerant atmosphere to the island’s cultural mix, which has been shaped by Indigenous groups, Dutch and Japanese colonizers, and folk practices carried across the Taiwan Strait from the Chinese mainland.

TAIPEI,TAIWAN – October 28: The scene at Taipei’s Gay Pride Parade. Taipei, Taiwan. October 28th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – OCTOBER 28: The scene at Taipei’s Gay Pride Parade. Taipei, Taiwan. October 28th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAIPEI,TAIWAN – OCT 28: Chi Chia-wei, the Taiwanese Gay Rights activist, at the Pride Parade in Taipei. Taipei, Taiwan. October 28th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

Taipei hosts the region’s largest gay pride parade. Last year more than 176,000 people attended, including then-vice president Lai.

After legalizing same-sex marriage in 2019, Taiwan last year gave same-sex couples the right to adopt children. But LGBTQ+ advocates say their work is not over. Same-sex couples are still barred from accessing reproductive technology like in vitro fertilization, and trans rights are still lagging. To change one’s gender legally, residents must show proof that they have undergone gender reassignment surgery.

Temples at the center

Temples are the cornerstone of Taiwanese society, with more than 12,000 across the country dedicated to Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian religious rites — or a mix of all three.

People leave flowers, fruit and other gifts for their local gods. Older residents can be seen smoking and chatting with friends, and students sometimes use the temple spaces as study spots. Two major festivals honoring the seafaring goddess Mazu attract millions of residents each year.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – OCTOBER 21: Nymphia Wind, center, performing at Fu Yong Gong temple in the Beitou District of Taipei. October 21st, 2023 Taipei, Taiwan An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

Temples feature heavily in Taiwanese politics too. They are key campaign stops for candidates and then become polling booths.

They are also places where the old and new come together. Nymphia Wind, a Taiwanese American drag queen who won the latest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” held a show at a temple.

Batter up

Few pastimes embody Taiwan’s hybrid identity as much as baseball. Japan, which colonized Taiwan for 50 years starting in 1895, introduced the American sport.

As China pushed Taiwan from the international stage, Taiwan’s leaders poured money into the sport as a way to forge a national identity.

Between the late 1960s and 1990s, Taiwan dominated the Little League World Series, winning 17 times, and several Taiwanese players have played in Major League Baseball in the United States.

Today, baseball is a national obsession. Watching a game in Taiwan today involves nonstop cheering, dancing, singing — by performers as well as the crowd. Being in the stands is a serious workout for many, with crowds bringing batons, horns, drums and even their own microphones and amplifiers as they try to make maximum noise for their team.

Status: It’s complicated

Taiwan, which is officially called the Republic of China (as opposed to the People’s Republic of China across the strait), exists in a kind of diplomatic gray zone. It has its own government, passport and currency and, despite Beijing’s claims otherwise, has enjoyed de facto sovereignty for the past 75 years. Still, it does not have a formal seat at the United Nations, and only 12 nations formally recognize it as a country — and that number has diminished as Beijing methodically picks off Taipei’s remaining diplomatic allies.

Today, allegiance to the Republic of China is complicated. Taiwan’s citizens lived through four decades of martial law in a one-party state led by the Kuomintang, whose members fled to Taiwan after losing mainland China to the Communists in 1949. That time of political repression under the KMT was known as the “White Terror.”

TAIPEI,TAIWAN – OCTOBER 10: Celebration for the National Day of The Republic of China, also known as 10/10 day, in front of the Presidential Palace, celebrating the Wuchang Rebellion which would lead to the Nationalist overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Taipei, Taiwan. October 10th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
HSINCHU,TAIWAN – SEPT 24: Children dressed as military personnel at a public open house at military base in Hsinchu. Hsinchu, Taiwan. September 24th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
HSINCHU,TAIWAN – SEPT 24: The scene at a public open house at military base in Hsinchu. Hsinchu, Taiwan. September 24th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post. (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)
TAICHUNG,TAIWAN – DECEMBER 30: Supporters of Ko Wen-Je , of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), at a rally in Taichung. Taichung, Taiwan. December 30th, 2023 Photograph by An Rong Xu for The Washington Post (An Rong Xu for The Washington Post)

In recent years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has linked unification with Taiwan as key to his dream of national “rejuvenation,” has escalated military activity around Taiwan. According to Xi, it is “inevitable” that Taiwan will become part of China.

That has created a constant sense of foreboding about a conflict that could kick off another world war involving the world’s two largest militaries — China and the United States — and potentially American regional allies including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines too.

These photos of everyday life on the island show what would be lost if China’s threats became reality.

About this story

Photography by An Rong Xu. Story by Lily Kuo. Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report. Story editing by Jennifer Samuel and Anna Fifield. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson. Design and development by Andrew Braford and Jake Crump. Design editing by Joe Moore.

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