In this viral photo (left) posted to Facebook by Yu Yen Huang, Taipei's new mayor Ko Wen-je is seen standing alone aboard a subway train. "It's definitely unusual for a politician to do like this," Yu told CNN. "Normally they go out with luxury cars, several body guards."

Story highlights

Taipei's mayor is photographed in a subway standing alone

Internet users in Taiwan reacted with surprise and praise

Chinese commenters show mixed reaction

CNN  — 

Barely two weeks into his term, Taipei’s new mayor has sparked debate across Taiwan and China with a simple act: a trip on the subway.

On the evening of January 2, a passenger photographed Mayor Ko Wen-Je traveling on a Taipei’s MRT train at night, standing alone and leaning next to the door.

Once posted on Facebook, the photo went viral in Taiwan, where it touched a nerve with citizens accustomed to politicians traveling in splendor.

“The mayor is so close to the people,” said one top-rated comment.

Another user quipped the mayor commuted with a “BMW” – Bicycle, MRT train, and Walking.

The mayor’s wife confirmed the sighting in a Facebook post, adding that she had been traveling with the mayor, but took a seat while he remained standing.

But some expressed concerns for the mayor’s safety: last year, a vicious knife attack on Taipei’s subway system left four people dead.

Chinese users react

In China, the photo was published in state news media, where it quickly spread among Internet users, touching off a debate on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform.

“See this? If Chinese people also had the right to vote, mayors would receive the same treatment, with no privileged car, no crowd following them everywhere, no flashbulbs… nothing.” wrote Pu Baoyi, a Chinese political commentator. “Some in China would call this the ‘corrupted way.’”

But some Chinese social media users accused the Taiwanese mayor of insincerity. “This actually isn’t such a mature display of politics,” said another Weibo user. “Politicians’ responsibility lies in implementing policies… not putting on a show.”

Chinese government officials — even those holding lower-level posts — are known for traveling in luxury motorcades with heavy security detail.

In 2011, Chinese media reacted with surprise when the United States’ newly-appointed ambassador to China, Gary Locke, was photographed at an airport Starbucks without any security and carrying his own backpack.

Mayor: I won’t be a ‘celebrity’

For many in Taiwan, Taipei’s new mayor represents an exciting departure from established politics.

A former emergency room doctor and political newcomer with no party affiliation, Ko defeated Sean Lien, the wealthy son of Taiwan’s former vice president and a member of the establishment Kuomintang political party, which favors closer ties with Beijing.

Ko has vowed to crack down on corruption and increase transparency.

The mayor has asked top officials to begin reporting their attendance at banquets and weddings, and has vowed not to attend social events as the city’s leader.

“A mayor should spend more time on administration, not being a celebrity,” he wrote on his Facebook account in December.

CNN Beijing intern Sherry Fei Ju contributed to this report.