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.

Inside Shanghai's cavernous Yuz Museum, there's a two-story metal box.
And inside that box: a fire hose dangling from a chain.

Every hour, the hose fills with water and dances about, spraying in a frenzy.
For just one minute.

"It's like a Chinese dragon," says Karen Cong, who's 25 and works in digital advertising.

Private museums like the Yuz are sprouting up along the riverfront in Shanghai, part of a government plan to build a Museum Mile on the waterfront and help turn China's financial hub into a cultural capital as well.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has covered China for nearly a decade. After reporting on the Aug. 12 explosion in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people, he offered this commentary.

There's a moment when you're covering a disaster in China when you know what happened.

You know it wasn't an accident, as the government initially says.

You know someone did something awful that put lives at risk to make money.

For me, that moment came when I was sitting in the hallway of a Tianjin middle school.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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