Frank Langfitt on Exploring the Real People Behind Shanghai’s Shining Lights

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. Before coming to the United Kingdom, he spent a decade as a reporter in China, most recently as NPR's correspondent in Shanghai.

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC '20 interviewed Frank Langfitt in October 2019.

In your new book The Shanghai Free Taxi, you met several interesting Shanghainese by offering a free taxi ride in exchange for conversation. Through your time as a "Free Loving Heart Taxi" Driver, did you drive all different types of people using your free service? Or did you encounter an especially interesting group of characters because only folks predisposed to adventure would take your taxi?

There was a selection bias towards interesting risk takers. A lot of people getting in the car were willing to take a risk and were curious. Those are good characters to write about and possess traits you would look for in a character that you would want to write about. These traits are also inherent to China’s rise in the last 40 years. The country has succeeded because of the traits of tremendous curiosity and the willingness to take risks.

I did get people in the car who weren't all that curious or interesting, and I didn’t pursue those characters. If you think about who you want to drive around, you would want to spend time talking to the hustlers and the rebels. That’s the narrative of China post-Mao. I did go trolling for different kinds of characters. I went to a ferry stop which is where I met Chen, a pajama salesman who ran an underground Christian house church. I also used to go to the Ritz Carlton, but no one took me up on that one, sadly. And when I went to the Power Station of Art, a contemporary art museum, I met people there who led me to other characters. Hence I see the selection bias positively. In the first few months I drove 80 people around town, but then focused on far smaller group of characters over a long period of time.

In the story about two brothers, Rocky and Ray, you talk about how the trek back to their villages for Chinese New Year was drastically different from previous experience a decade and a half earlier on the same journey with two migrant workers. Specifically, you mention how Ray's daughter, Dora, lives a life of relative luxury with her father, while the daughter of the migrant worker didn't even recognize her father. Your story illustrates some of the social effects of China’s rapid economic growth. Do younger Chinese remember the time when China was not as prosperous? Does this affect the Chinese youth’s attitudes about the government?

It depends on what you mean by younger. Ray and Rocky grew up in rural poverty, so they have a great appreciation for China’s economic boom   and are very driven. If you talk to Ray and his wife about Dora, they would occasionally complain that Dora, who is lovely,   can seem a bit spoiled at times because of the affluent life she’s lived, and that she doesn’t appreciate hard work in the same way they did as children. This is just like in America  where the ‘greatest generation’ (the WW2 generation) complained about the Baby Boomers and the way we complain about the millennials!

In China the younger generation under the age of 25 has never known less than an annual GDP growth rate of 6%. There is no generation like that in history. It is staggering. They have tremendous expectations. When they look at the government, they expect things to just keep getting better. It is very challenging for the government to meet those expectations because recessions are inevitable; that kind of growth is not forever. This is going to be a challenge in the coming years for the regime.

Guo, the mother of Rocky and Ray, is in awe of her sons’ success. She worked very hard and is integral to their success. She is happy with how China is doing and is very proud of the country's economic growth. Rocky and Ray are also optimistic, but Ray is more skeptical since he has lived in the U.S. and has traveled elsewhere. He is more skeptical of censorship, but he is supportive of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ray very much backs the government. 

But towards the end of the book when the Chinese Communist Party ends term limits for leaders, it is like a cold glass of water to the face of some of my passengers. They knew it was coming. But they were shocked and scared because this is what happened with Mao. Mao could not be removed from power, stayed on far too long and   nearly destroyed the country. They don’t think Xi will do anything like that, but they recognize that China’s political system no longer has a crucial stop-gap measure. It makes everyone kind of nervous, especially now that the country has been growing more repressive  and censorship is very much on the rise. People are much more on edge today than they were when I started reporting this book in 2014. 

In the same line of thought, how do young Chinese see the West? Based on your experiences driving young people, would you say they have an accurate understanding of the West, despite Chinese censorship?

Younger people have a dimmer view of the West and the U.S. than what they would have had 20 years ago when I first came to China. The reason for that is in the book. In 1997, Bill Clinton was President, we were running budget surpluses, and we were at peace. The biggest scandal then was Monica Lewinsky. Now, we have big deficits, we are in global wars, we triggered the 2008 global financial crisis, we went to war in Iraq under false pretenses. The American standing in China is dramatically lower than it was two decades ago. 

In China censorship has been extremely successful and has also played a role. The government has done a great job of creating an intranet so that outside criticism of the regime is not seen by that many Chinese people inside the country. It is almost an alternative reality. The regime is able to create a narrative of America in which we don't really care about human rights, and we are just using the issue to weaken China. If you look now at how they are managing Hong Kong they have managed to convince many young people that the protests are actually a separatist movement. Sovereignty in China is especially sensitive because of the history of colonialism, Japanese occupation, and lost territory. So, people have a considerably dimmer view of the West because the Chinese Communist Party wants them to and because the government has designed a good foundational control system. That colors the way younger people view the US and the West in general.

To answer your question further, some people have a much dimmer view of our country in part because of President Trump. Initially some people liked Trump because he was brash and very different from Chinese politicians. He amused them, just as he amused many of the American people who voted for him. But over time many Chinese people became much more disturbed by his behavior. The trade war worries them a lot, particularly the targeting of Huawei. People felt like Trump was picking on Huawei—even if they had no illusions about whether Huawei was spying on the U.S. Moreover, President Trump seemed to be picking on a successful Chinese global brand that many Chinese people are proud of.

In the case of Ashley, she questions the Western democratic system. Part of her conclusion is that it will not work if you do not have an informed electorate. She is very blunt and is disappointed with the level of dialogue and knowledge of many Americans she meets. 

You touched briefly upon how some Shanghainese feel about Donald Trump's presidency in the States. What surprised you the most about their insights into American politics? 

The more sophisticated Chinese tend to have a decent understanding of American politics, certainly the characters in the book did. Internet censorship has been so successful that people, even some who are relatively sophisticated, don't really understand the civic values of the U.S. For instance, as people in Hong Kong were burning the Chinese flag, people on the Mainland wanted the protesters beaten and jailed. They would post on Twitter, “What would you do to someone who had burned an American flag?” I kept telling people it's not against the law. We have freedom of speech. I read it and thought they don't know what the U.S. is even about, which is a big problem as we see in the battle between the NBA and the Chinese Communist Party. They are trying to regulate free speech in democratic countries. I've been covering these stories for the last few years, but this is the most pronounced and astonishing case.  

Civic values will take a long time to develop in China. If you live there, you understand that the system doesn't encourage civic values. You are fighting against thousands of years of authoritarianism. China has effectively always been an authoritarian state. It would take a lot of time to make it a tolerant, pluralistic country. And my Chinese friends always tell me that it is a mistake to look at all the glitz of a place like Shanghai and see it as Western. It is still very much a Chinese city. 

On a different note, China is one of the world's largest emitters of carbon, but recently the Chinese government took steps to improve its air quality by limiting emissions from coal and coal-based industries. From your experiences talking to the people you drove, what is the everyday Chinese sentiment on climate change? Do they see the government as responsible for present and future climate-related health issues? 

Going back to the 1990s, people were deeply concerned about the pollution and health effects, but they were prisoners of a government that for a long time was wedded to high GDP growth. Growth was how local officials were judged, not whether you created a clean environment. The theory was that as long as the Chinese economy chugged along, lives would get better and the party would stay in power. That is all that matters. And it influenced every decision.

In bad years, I remember going into Beijing on a 500+ PMI day and being in the tunnels underneath the roads where there were clouds of pollution.   Air quality has improved, though; Beijing is getting better. The coalfired power plants were moved outside of Beijing. Unfortunately, its topography is a bit like that of  Los Angeles and the pollution finds its way back in and gets stuck. I feel like Chinese people are feeling better about it. If you live under absolutely dreadful circumstances for a long time and then things finally start to improve, you are very grateful. That said, there are many people who emigrate from China, and one of the reasons they do so is to provide clean air for their kids. They are concerned about the health of their children.

As an expatriate, I felt guilty for staying there. How long was I going to have my kids breathing this air? I thought that five years was enough.  

As to climate change and rising sea levels, this isn't something I have researched enough and so I wouldn't feel comfortable trying to give you an answer, but when people think about climate,   the impact of pollution is foremost in their minds. The U.S. embassy had a huge influence on this because it set up air monitoring machines. And the Chinese government tried to shut them down since the results were very embarrassing. That had a positive impact. There was more transparency about what was actually happening in China. The fact that this information about pollution came from a foreign country telling the truth put a lot of pressure on the Chinese government. 

What you see is that there is no rule of law. The party feels like if it were to tell the truth about a lot of things, it would weaken its support among the people. All governments lie, but the Communist Party lies a lot and it tells big lies. Information control is incredibly important, and people do feel that the authorities do not tell them things on time. 

The Olympic Games provide a great example. There was a case of melamine in milk powder that killed some children and made thousands sick. It happened before the Olympics, but they hushed it all up so it wouldn't affect the  2008 Olympics. A lot of this is about saving ‘face,’ but also they do a lot of  things that are also very unpopular. The threat of criticism is one of the reasons why they enact censorship; if they opened things up and people knew more, it would put pressure on them politically.

In your book you talk about trust being a scarce resource in China—specifically the story of the Buddhist monks releasing fish into the rivers to save them, while downstream there are entrepreneurial thieves who catch the released fish. Do you think that the restrictions on religion in China have greatly impacted civic values?

The basic tenets of Buddhism and Christianity are about treating people better and focusing on how you treat strangers. There is no parable of the Good Samaritan in Chinese ancient culture that I’m aware of; if you have been raised with that, maybe you would think twice about catching the released fish. When I met some people in the street, I couldtell if they were Christians or Buddhists—you could tell who had faith and who didn't. There is a story that maybe did not make it into the book in which I had just gotten off a plane and was very tired. There was a young woman who carried my bag off the subway and up the stairs. We started talking and she said she was a Christian. I asked her what her name was. She answered Mary, and I thought, “of course her name is Mary!” That was the only person who ever picked up my bag in 10 years in China. Go figure! So yes, I think freedom of religion would have a positive impact on civic values. Religion could be a powerful force for good in the country. 

What impact do you hope to leave on your American and Chinese readers (if they were to gain access to your book)?

For American readers, I just want people to appreciate the diversity of the country in terms of experience and nuance. And I also want them to appreciate the humanity of the Chinese people. From a distance they are seen as an enormous mass. The Americans are worried that they have either taken jobs or will take jobs; they’ll eat Americans’ lunch. But when you get to know a lot of these characters, American readers will understand them better—feeling some kinship with them. They will identify with the pressures that most of the characters face. I hope they appreciate the complexity behind a country that is anything but a monolith. China is intimidating because of its size and its impenetrability. For Westerners the culture is different, and the language is incredibly difficult. That's what I hope readers take away from the book—the humanity. I also hope readers appreciate the Chinese people since there is much to admire about them—how they've managed this overwhelming change and how difficult it has been, as it would be for any people, to go through so much rapid change in such a short period of time.

For the Chinese people, unfortunately they cannot read this book—it is not sold on Amazon and is banned to some degree even though it is not a particularly political book. I would hope that if they did read it, they might have a chance to hear the variety of thoughts of different types of characters. People mostly cluster together. Whether it is London, New York, or Shanghai, they don't tend to meet such a wide variety of people. Some Chinese have read it and have been interested in the characters. Some have particularly related to Rocky and Ray. But it was really written for Westerners and the American audience. 

Shreya Bhatnagar CMC'20Student Journalist

J. Patrick Fischer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

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