Frank Langfitt

Frank Langfitt is NPR's international correspondent based in Shanghai. He covers China, Japan, and the Koreas for NPR News. His reports have included visits to China's infamous black jails –- secret detention centers — as well as his own travails taking China's driver's test, which he failed three times.

Before moving to China, Langfitt was NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi. He reported from Sudan and covered the civil war in Somalia, where learned to run fast in Kevlar and interviewed imprisoned Somali pirates, who insisted they were just misunderstood fishermen. During the Arab spring, Langfitt covered the uprising and crushing of the reform movement in Bahrain.

Prior to Africa, Langfitt was a labor correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covered the 2008 financial crisis, the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler and coal mine disasters in West Virginia.

Shanghai is Langfitt's second posting in China. Before coming to NPR, he spent five years as a correspondent in Beijing for The Baltimore Sun, covering a swath of Asia from East Timor to the Khyber Pass. During the opening days of the Afghan War, Langfitt reported from Pakistan and Kashmir.

In 2008, Langfitt covered the Beijing Olympics as a member of NPR's team, which won an Edward R. Murrow Award for sports reporting. Langfitt's print and visual journalism have also been honored by the Overseas Press Association and the White House News Photographers Association.

Langfitt spent his early years in journalism stringing for the Philadelphia Inquirer and living in Hazard, Kentucky, where he covered the state's Appalachian coalfields for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Before becoming a reporter, Langfitt drove a taxi in Philadelphia and dug latrines in Mexico. Langfitt is a graduate of Princeton and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

Editor's Note: NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt once drove a taxi as a summer job. He decided to do it again, this time offering free rides around Shanghai in exchange for stories about one of the world's most dynamic cities. Here's his latest installment.

I'd been renting a Toyota Camry to give free rides around the city for my series Streets of Shanghai, about the lives of ordinary Chinese. But the monthly rental fees were killing me, so I figured I could save money by buying a used car.

I went to a reputable used car dealership. The first hint that this would be different than shopping in the U.S. came when I met my salesman, a fresh college grad.

Chinese and American officials are deep into their annual meeting this week in Washington, hashing out the nations' complex relationship. In addition to many economic and strategic issues, they'll discuss China's remarkable island-building in the South China Sea.

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Editor's Note: NPR's Frank Langfitt has been driving around Shanghai offering free rides as part of his "Streets of Shanghai" stories. But recently, he was a passenger in a taxi when something unusual happened.

Strangers rarely discuss politics in public in China, let alone the taboo topic, democracy. The Communist Party sees talk of political alternatives as a direct threat and has jailed people for promoting such ideas online.

Last month, a Chinese government think tank bashed history professors from Harvard, Georgetown and other leading American universities regarding things they wrote — at least 15 years ago — about events that occurred more than two centuries ago.

"This was a uniquely vitriolic attack," says Georgetown's Jim Millward. The article calls him as "arrogant," "overbearing" and an "imperialist," and dismisses Millward's and his colleagues' scholarship as "academically absurd."

Smartphone sales in China contracted by about 4 percent year-on-year from January through March, according to International Data Corp., the American market analysis firm. Sales for the first quarter were just under 100 million. IDC says this is the first time in six years that the smartphone market in China declined year-on-year.

Shanghai is one of the world's most vertical cities, a metropolis where 50-story buildings are routine. At night, the cityscape is so cinematic, it has been featured in both James Bond and Mission Impossible films.

This year, Shanghai Tower, the world's second-tallest building, will open and put an exclamation point on Shanghai's futuristic skyline. The structure, which measures 2,073 feet, is loaded with symbolism.

When Cici Xu isn't working as an accountant, she's driving around Shanghai picking up passengers for People's Uber, the American company's nonprofit ride-sharing service that operates in nine mainland Chinese cities.

Xu, 40, makes about $1,300 a month as a driver, but says she doesn't really do it for the money.

Looking for a way to give a departed loved one a send-off everyone will remember?

How about hiring strippers to perform at the funeral?

In some parts of rural China, this is not considered absurd, but a good idea.

Cinderella. Billboard. Mo Money. Lady Gaga.

What do they all have in common?

They are a few of the unusual English names young Chinese have adopted over the years in hopes of mixing more easily with Westerners. Such offbeat names, though, sometimes have the opposite effect, generating puzzlement and the wrong kind of smiles.

Lindsay Jernigan, an American entrepreneur, has set up a new website, bestenglishname.com, to help Chinese choose more appropriate names.

On weekend afternoons, large crowds descend on a pair of street corners across from People's Square in downtown Shanghai to trade stock tips. Shen Yuxi has set up a homemade desk with two laptops, a big flat screen and offers insights like this:

"When a Communist Party chairman takes office, I buy stock in companies from his hometown," Shen tells a crowd of about 20 people that spills out over the sidewalk.

Recently, Shen has been buying up companies in Shaanxi, the home province of Xi Jinping, who serves as general secretary of China's Communist Party.

Over the past couple of decades, a river of labor poured out of China's interior to its coasts as hundreds of millions of people traded farm for factory. Most improved their lives, but they paid for it in other ways, leaving behind families for a sometimes lonely existence.

These days, though, more and more factories are moving from the coast into China's countryside, creating an opportunity for more workers to come home — workers like Zhang Zhaojun, who left the mountains of Hubei province in central China in 2009.

Read this essay in Chinese.

That's me (with scarf) in what's becoming my natural element, driving Chinese people around Shanghai and beyond for a series called "Streets of Shanghai." Usually, I offer free rides around the city so I can meet different kinds of people and get a sense of real life in China, where things move so fast a generation can be measured in five years.

One night a couple of years ago, a young woman named Xiao Fang was at home amid the rice fields of central China's Hubei province. She'd just bought a smartphone and was trying to make friends on WeChat, China's go-to social media app. She began using a function that allows people to find one another when they shake their phones simultaneously.

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If you walk the streets of China today, you'll quickly notice that most young people wear glasses. In Shanghai, for instance, 86 percent of high school students suffer from myopia, or nearsightedness, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency.

Myopia has risen quickly in much of East Asia and Southeast Asia. And researchers are still trying to pin down exactly what's driving the epidemic.

The Academy Awards are coming this month, and if you're still trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, it may be easier to find them in China than in the U.S.

A few weeks ago, the films flooded into the pirated-DVD store down the street from my apartment in Shanghai. It happens like clockwork every year.

I asked T.J. Green, an American executive who runs a small movie theater company here in China, to visit the store and explain what was happening.

Nobody does fake like China. In 2011, a fake Apple store popped up in the southwestern city of Kunming. It looked so authentic, even some employees thought it was real.

This year, three farmers in central China set up a fake local government.

This month, police shut down a fake bank in the eastern city of Nanjing, where depositors reportedly lost nearly $33 million.

The Shanghai government has fired four local officials for failing to prevent a stampede that killed three dozen people on New Year's Eve. Those who lost their jobs include Shanghai's Huangpu district Communist Party chief, its director and its top two police officials.

Investigators say that as huge crowds packed the riverfront in the Huangpu district, district party Chief Zhou Wei and other officials were busy enjoying a banquet at an opulent Japanese restaurant nearby.

An American filmmaker has made a documentary on Tibet. Those two elements alone might seem grounds for China's Communist Party to ban it, but instead the film — Nowhere to Call Home — quietly has been making the rounds in China and winning praise from local audiences.

The reason? The film is an even-handed, deeply personal story that steers clear of politics. Journalist Jocelyn Ford spent years documenting the life of Zanta, a Tibetan migrant who fled her poor, mountain village to build a life for herself and her son in Beijing.

China today is a whirlwind of competing trends: authoritarianism versus personal freedom; pollution versus environmentalism, and self-interest versus spirituality.

That last conflict plays out every other Sunday morning in Shanghai when hundreds of Buddhists pack the banks of the city's Huangpu River. Monks in saffron-colored robes lead believers in song in the shadow of some of the world's tallest skyscrapers.

A government job in China used to be a gravy train: easy hours, little scrutiny and — usually — a chance to make good money through perks and corruption. This year, though, the 1.4 million candidates who signed up to take China's civil service exam marked a drop of more than 100,000 from the previous year.

Most people think the reason is the government's fierce anti-corruption drive, which has taken a lot of the profit out of public service. Recently, a low-level Shanghai official vented to NPR about life under China's toughest crackdown in modern memory.

Editor's Note: NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt once drove a taxi as a summer job. He decided to do it again, this time offering free rides around Shanghai in exchange for stories about one of the world's most dynamic cities. This is the first in an occasional series.

I've been working on an unusual reporting project this fall in Shanghai. I picked up a car and have been driving around the city offering people free rides.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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