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Taiwan's new president will be watched closely by the U.S. and China

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Taiwan has a new president - Lai Ching-te or William Lai, as he is known in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING).

PRESIDENT LAI CHING-TE: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTIN: In his inauguration speech today, he said democracy and freedom are Taiwan's unwavering commitments. Lai is a leader both the U.S. and China will be watching closely. NPR's Emily Feng has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Whenever he gets the chance, Lai Ching-Te still comes to the same barbershop in the southern city of Tainan as he's been doing for more than three decades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The barbershop's founder, Li Qunfu, says Lai's signature haircut - a strong middle part, straight black hair flopping down - was inspired by a former Japanese prime minister.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says he never imagined Lai, who was a doctor when they first met, would actually be president one day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The hair is now so iconic, Li, the barber, says the cut is known across Taiwan as the chingde tou - the Ching-Te haircut.. This steadfastness of habit is classic Lai, his aides say. And it matches his measured rise to power with a reputation for being a meticulous, if sometimes bland, bureaucrat. Lai was raised by a single mother in abject poverty, and that provided his early motivation.

LIN I-CHIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Privately, Lai is very emotional, says Lin I-Chin, a legislator and a former longtime aide to Lai. Whenever he talks about his mother, Lin says. Lai starts crying. Lin says publicly, however, Lai is a workaholic, and he's known for being almost annoyingly stubborn and idealistic.

WANG YONGSHUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Wang Yongshun, a former campaign manager remembers in 2004, Lai saw three young men driving a car the wrong way.

WANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Wang says, Lai told the men off for not following traffic rules. And then the young men beat Lai up so badly, he was sent to the hospital. Lai entered politics just as Taiwan could start directly electing their president in 1996, and he made his name by rising within a grassroots faction within the island's now ruling Democratic progressive party, a faction that favored Taiwan's formal independence from China, which is why his China policy is his most divisive feature. Lai's been dogged by these comments he made in 2017 when he was Taiwan's premier. In which he said he was a, quote, "pragmatic worker for Taiwan's independence." He since walked those comments back, but it's why Lai is despised by Chinese leaders who see him as a separatist and criticized by opposition politicians in Taiwan who seek friendlier ties with China. Politicians like Su Chi, former head of Taiwan's National Security Council.

SU CHI: Lai Ching-Te really be cautious with his words. Otherwise he'll be courting disastrous for us all.

FENG: For the last four years, Lai has been Taiwan's vice president. He's worked hard not to rock the boat. And as president, he signaled he will continue with much of the economic and foreign policies of his predecessor, President Tsai Ing-Wen, pursuing strong ties with the U.S. and Japan and focusing on Taiwanese, not Chinese identity. It's a delicate balance, and he will have to compromise. Domestic politics in Taiwan is extremely polarized. The opposition controls the legislature. Lai's also invited his hair dressers, the Li family, to his inauguration.

LI BINGHUA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: We love Lai's idealism, Li Binghua says, the barbershop's current manager. Lai's helped Taiwan become more visible on the international stage, he tells me. But that visibility also makes Lai's job harder. He'll need to balance that with a bigger, more hostile China nearby and a distracted United States.

Emily Feng, Tainan, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.