Cab Talk12 min read

Brian Spivey interviews former NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt

While working as NPR’s Shanghai correspondent from 2011 to 2016, Frank Langfitt observed that China was at a crossroads. The enormous economic growth of the previous three decades had yielded a more prosperous and worldly population, but had also led to stark inequality, rampant corruption, and a cooling economy. Langfitt wanted to understand what ordinary Chinese people thought and cared about during this inflection point. To find out, he drew on his prior experience as a taxi driver in Philadelphia, and drove people around Shanghai in exchange for conversation, for a series of radio stories.

The resulting book, The Shanghai Free Taxi, provides an in-depth, sensitive and informed look at what ordinary Chinese think several years into Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” I talked with him on the phone about why he decided to drive a taxi for free in Shanghai, the kinds of interesting people he met while doing so, and what those people think about the social and political changes they are living through.

Brian: For many curious travelers, conversations with taxi drivers stand out as an easy way of getting a pulse on local thinking. You inverted that dynamic by giving free taxi rides as a way to learn about ordinary Chinese. What sparked the idea?

Frank: I had been a taxi driver some 30 years ago in Philadelphia. When I got out of college, I couldn’t find a job, so I drove taxis. And I learned more about my hometown in that year as a taxi driver than in my previous 18 years there. I met all kinds of people and they took me to different parts of the city, including very dangerous ones. My appreciation for the complexity of the city, the differing points of view on life, was vastly enhanced by that experience.

As foreign correspondents we have an idea for a story, and then we look for someone who is going to see or illustrate it in a certain way. I thought: why not reverse everything, go out and have the story come to me. See who gets in the car, see what they talk about, see who they are, what their interests are, and let them largely guide the discussion. I just thought it would be a different kind of approach, and it worked.

A crucial theme of the book is the exploration of how trust has broken down in Chinese society. How were you able to build a sense of trust with your subjects?

The taxi was a great icebreaker, and a way to listen carefully and see if there was something interesting about their biography. Once I got to know someone, I would offer to take them back and forth from work. I would stay in touch. For many of the cases in the book I would get to know people over a period of years. I drove some of them home to the countryside for Chinese New Year. I served as a chauffeur in two weddings. And throughout it all, I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just listened, and sometimes only after several years would people broach sensitive topics with me. The key is taking the time to get to know people.

The individuals you profile include a hairstylist, a trio of lawyers, a used car salesman, a foreign-educated investment banker, and a pajama salesman, among others. Why did you settle on these particular people and their stories? 

What I liked about these people [I chose] is that they were thoughtful and articulate. And they were different from each other, they had different points of view. Some were more sophisticated, some less sophisticated. Some lived inside the Great Firewall, others lived outside it.

China today is so much more heterogeneous and nuanced than it seemed two decades ago [Frank Langfitt served as the Beijing correspondent for The Baltimore Sun from 1997-2002]. I don’t think I could have written a book about just a few characters. I would have thought I was missing something, and I don’t know if there is a character that would have been able to carry that much weight in a book – who was that ambidextrous and could pivot from issue to issue.

You state up front that the book is poised on an inflection point as you saw it in 2011: “How would the party respond to the tremendous changes and rising expectations of its own people? Would it adapt and become more open or revert to its authoritarian instincts?” What is your assessment of what has happened since that inflection point?

First of all, the government is much tougher than it was eight years ago. This is objectively true and it’s important to tell people that. What I think is also important, and there are people in my book that express this, is that there is still a lot of residual support for the Communist Party. This is so important for readers to recognize, because it’s easy to paint a picture of China in 2019 as dystopian. There are dystopian aspects, but the fact of the matter is that every character in the  book lives a much better material life than their parents. In a democratic system, any party that had delivered economically like the Communist Party has would be in a very strong position, electorally speaking.

One of the reasons I kept Sarah as a character, though a minor character, is that she represents people who do very well. She doesn’t come from much, but makes her way in the city and ends up in a psychology program and is getting a Masters. She’s a big fan of Xi Jinping. Ray is a fan of Xi as well. It’s important to recognize that China is getting more authoritarian and that people are uncomfortable with that. But it is a fact still that this is not a population that hates the Party and wants to overthrow it. Now, we’ll see what happens if the economy continues to slow and we get a recession, and then more repression. Then it will definitely be time for a new series of books on China.

What I’ve been trying to emphasize as I traveled across the United States in the last two weeks on my book tour is that Americans often hear “authoritarian system” and think of the Soviet Union where it was repression and poverty. China’s not like that. It’s been repression and spectacular growth – it’s totally different. The uneasiness of the people in the book is a manifestation of this. Many are supportive, such as Ray, Rocky, Sarah, even Max. But with the changes to the constitution [the Communist Party’s removal of term limits in February 2018], the people in my book did not think China was headed that way, even though perhaps they should have known.  

Your characters often make poignant critiques of Western democratic systems as they individually undergo periods of disillusionment with the West or the US. Do you think we as Americans need to hear these criticisms? 

An emphatic “yes.” Americans need to understand that there is a price to soft power, and that the country will pay for its policy choices. The Iraq war lost the US tremendous prestige. When I arrived in Shanghai in 2011, one of the first things taxi drivers asked me was why Americans love war. The global financial crisis [of 2008] completely undermined America’s ability to tell countries how they should manage their finances. And then the election of Donald Trump is a good example. Ashley comes away from the United States considerably disillusioned, and sees some of the advantages of authoritarianism. In these kinds of books there is sometimes a trope where a Chinese person lives under authoritarianism and then moves to America and everything’s better. Ashley is the opposite. She goes to America and sees something quite different. She goes back to China. So Americans need to understand how the United States is perceived, and how the ideals they would like to export around the world are undermined by policy decisions and voting behavior.

When I arrived in Shanghai in 2011, one of the first things taxi drivers asked me was why Americans love war.”

Shanghai itself looms large in the book, as a character and a force. For many of your characters it is a beacon of get-rich-quick schemes and wealth, and for others, like Max, they just wanted to see the spectacle of the city lights. Do you ever wonder how the book might have been different if you based the book elsewhere?

I actually had other ideas for this project. I wanted to go out to small cities and towns in central China, set up the taxi service for two weeks and drive people around. I think that would have been fantastic. Can you imagine taking the car and putting it in a city of 30,000 in central China? Or going to villages and just being an itinerant driver. I think it would have been an even better story! I think there are so many possible permutations, but I didn’t have the time to do that, as I was still working full time for NPR while reporting the book.

As you say in the first chapter, living in China felt as if “the tectonic plates were shifting underneath your feet.” How do you write a book about a place changing so quickly, when as soon as you finish it there are developments that feel like they ought to be accounted for?

You hold onto the book as long as your publisher allows you. If I were to write it now, I’d be getting into the re-education camps in Xinjiang and the protests in Hong Kong. And your point is well taken that the book would be even more political. Incidentally, the book was not meant to be political at all. When I began writing in 2014, I wanted it to be more of a light, breezy travel book. But then Xi Jinping and Donald Trump got in the way. As a result, it had to have a more political edge. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know how you write a breezy, happy-go-lucky China book from here on in, because how do you write that with a million people in detention camps in Xinjiang. Some Chinese people think that all Westerners care about is politics. But there’s no avoiding politics now.

I think the last few years is a turning point for China, and in how people will be writing about China for some time. I’ll be very curious to see what other narrative non-fiction books related to China are like in the next few years. It’s important that we keep asking “Where are we now?” Evan Osnos’s book and Rob Schmitz’s book – both of which are superb – came earlier on in the Chinese Dream. My book deals a bit with that, but it’s a few years on now, where the framework is more “president for life,” domestic repression, the trade war and the election of Trump.

I found myself drawn to Max: the hairdresser from rural Yunnan who goes to Shanghai and cuts the hair of elderly people living alone as an act of charity. You place Max’s story as part of the “growing compassion in the heart of Shanghai.” What do you think accounts for this growing compassion?

People can be very materialistic in China, because they were denied prosperity for so long under Mao. I think Max is an example of China moving beyond that. Individuals are looking for more meaning and to have warmer relations with people. They want to do more than just enrich themselves. Since everything happens faster in China, people’s thinking and their attitudes towards the less fortunate have changed rapidly too. With prosperity in a place like Shanghai, we have focused too much on the negative – and we do still have a lot of scammers – but Max is a wonderful counterpoint.

If you observe how beggars are treated in Shanghai now versus twenty years ago, it is night and day. People appreciate that not everyone has the same opportunities. There is a growing compassion, and we shouldn’t look at China through one lens. Max shows the promise that if there were a freer system where say, religion was allowed to play a larger part in society, we’d probably have more people like him.

Now that you are NPR’s correspondent in London, how has your time in China informed your view of the political chaos around Brexit?

Authoritarianism is the way to go. No, I’m joking. One thing that I’ve found interesting is that the Chinese Dream and Brexit have some things in common. The Chinese Dream is about the rejuvenation of the nation: a nation that has been mistreated and disrespected in the view of Xi and the Communist Party. It’s about re-establishing respect. Brexit was also about taking back control from Brussels and the EU, and the thinking was that the UK would go back to a time where there was a clearer British identity. Among some in the Communist Party and many Brexiteers, there is also a shared sense that foreign countries are mistreating them, not respecting them – that foreigners are the problem. I wrote an article recently where I encountered Brexit supporters complaining about the unwillingness in Brussels to give the UK what it wants as part of a Brexit withdrawal agreement. They say, “Hey, we saved Europe from the Nazis, you can’t do this to us. You have to give us a good deal.” Trumpism, the China Dream and Brexit all share a sense of nationalism, of heightened identity, of victimization by foreign powers. As an American who spent a decade in China and is now in Britain, that is the common thread I see. ∎

Frank Langfitt, The Shanghai Free Taxi (PublicAffairs, June 2019).