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.

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.

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.

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/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On Wednesday, the U.S. will begin offering Chinese tourists and business people multiple-entry visas valid for up to 10 years. The change, announced by President Obama in Beijing, is designed to help the American economy and build goodwill in China. China's Foreign Ministry says it will reciprocate.

The first impression most Chinese have of the U.S. government comes when they apply for a visa. For years, they've dreaded the process.

As far back as the early 1990s, Washington thought trade and investment eventually would make China more democratic. In the past couple of years, though, the Communist Party has doubled down on repression at home and become more aggressive overseas.

In short, things have not turned out as Washington had hoped, and relations between the world's two major powers are tense these days.

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