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.

I've been traveling to Hong Kong since 1997, when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule. Reporting on the pro-democracy protests in recent weeks, I've been struck by a change in the people here. Many are no longer willing to give their full names when talking about politics and the current protests.

A couple of nights ago I was interviewing a real estate agent in a pinstripe suit on an elevated walkway as police battled and pepper-sprayed demonstrators in the distance.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong in the past two weeks, demanding democracy and grabbing global attention.

Many threads have run through the protests, including one that might seem surprising: faith. Many of the leaders are Christian, and some cite faith as an inspiration.

If the goal of the protesters who flooded Hong Kong streets in the past couple of weeks can be boiled down to a word, it's "democracy."

But many real-life worries have driven that demand, including economic ones. They range from frustration about jobs and high housing prices to competition — and a culture clash — with mainland Chinese.

Perry Chong, a die-hard protester, was sitting beneath a tent in a nearly abandoned protest zone Wednesday across from the city government headquarters.

Nixon Ma runs a small electronics shop in Hong Kong's Wanchai business district, and since the protests began late last month, he says, sales are down 30 percent.

Like the protesters, he wants to see genuine democracy in this former British colony. But he opposes the tactics of the demonstrators who filled the streets and disrupted businesses.

"I agree. I 100 percent support [the protesters], but not in this way," he says. "For example, taxi drivers, a lot of businesses are unhappy because it disturbs their normal lives," he says.

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have impressed people around the world with their idealism, politeness and guts. But in mainland China, the view is different.

As casinos close in Atlantic City, more are rising halfway around the world in Macau, a Chinese territory on the edge of the South China Sea.

Macau already has 35 casinos, including the Venetian, which features gondoliers from Naples and Florence who belt out "O Sole Mio" along an ersatz canal as Chinese tourists snap pictures. In the next several years, Macau will add more multibillion-dollar gambling resorts modeled on Versailles and Paris.

Chinese authorities have suspended a teacher after she was recorded berating her students for not providing teachers with gifts.

Many parents in China's hypercompetitive schooling system use gifts to try to buy influence.

The teacher, Feng Qunchao in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province, harangued the high school students throughout the class.

"You don't take this seriously, huh?" she says, according to an audio tape. "Can't afford two or four dollars? You guys are a bunch of trash! A bunch of dog lungs," she adds, using a Chinese insult.

The hottest surfing in China this week wasn't along some palm-fringed beach in the south, but on a muddy, sometimes trash-strewn river in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

The Chinese e-commerce behemoth Alibaba is poised this week for what could be one of the biggest IPOs in Wall Street history. One reason Alibaba has been so dominant in China is its business-to-consumer platform, Taobao, a sort of Chinese eBay.

Last year, Taobao and Alibaba's brand-name retail site, Tmall, drove nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in transactions.

Along the way, Taobao has even transformed village economies.

Like most great origin stories, the tale behind China's e-commerce giant, Alibaba, begins simply. In the winter of 1999, Jack Ma, a former English teacher, gathered friends in an apartment in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

China's largest fair devoted to fine art photography opened in Shanghai this weekend. The first-time event is called Photo Shanghai and includes more than 500 works from photographers around the world.

One of the exhibits drawing a lot of Chinese visitors this weekend is by photographer Zhang Kechun. One of the most striking images features a Buddha head, about 40 feet high, sitting in the middle of an open pit coal mine.

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One Saturday night this summer, a foreigner fainted and fell to the floor of a Shanghai subway car.

The passengers around him scattered. Not a single person tried to help.

When the train arrived at the next station, hundreds rushed out, nearly trampling each other.

The incident was captured on closed-circuit cameras. Tens of millions in China have now seen the images, which have rekindled a long-running debate among Chinese about their national character as well as trust and fear in modern society.

Police shut down the Beijing Independent Film Festival over the weekend, detaining organizers and running off participants.

It's just the latest crackdown under China's President Xi Jinping. Since Xi took over last year, his administration has suppressed Internet speech, hammered the news media with even more censorship, and jailed people who have called for a system of checks and balances.

So, why do so many ordinary Chinese like the guy?

One big reason is his sustained attack on endemic corruption, perhaps the single greatest source of anger for most Chinese.

When 16,000 dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai last year, it inspired a lot of questions about China's environmental conditions and a lot of disgust.

Now, those pigs have helped inspire an arresting exhibit at Shanghai's contemporary art museum, the Power Station of Art.

The solo show, called The Ninth Wave, opened this month and features the work of a top, Chinese contemporary artist, Cai Guo-Qiang. His installations are grand, provocative and unsettling.

After years of stunning growth, China's go-go real estate market is now in retreat.

Prices fell last month in 79 out of 100 cities, according to the China Real Estate Index run by SouFun Holdings, a real estate website. Land sales dropped nearly 30 percent this spring from a year earlier.

Real estate has been one of the engines driving the world's second-largest economy, which is why economists in China and around the world are watching the market closely these days.

As Beijing's notorious air pollution continues to take a toll on people's health, it's also making it much harder for foreign firms to attract staff there these days. Some companies are now offering more money, more vacation and shorter stints to lure people to China's capital. What was once a plum assignment for expatriates is increasingly seen as a hardship post.

There were times a few years back when the emergency room at SUNY Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse looked like a scene from a zombie movie. Dr. Ross Sullivan, a physician there, recalls one afternoon when staff wheeled in a man with dilated pupils who was covered in sweat.

"The patient was screaming obscenities, and anybody he would pass, he was threatening and saying he was going to kill them," Sullivan recalls.

Police suspected the patient had taken "bath salts," the notorious synthetic stimulants that were ravaging scores of American communities at the time.

Decades of socialism and military rule kept Myanmar — or Burma, as it was known — poor and isolated.

There was one upside, though. The economy was so lousy, there was no drive to demolish the big British colonial buildings in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, and replace them with the glass and steel towers that now define much of the skylines in East Asia.

China has suffered small-scale terror attacks in the past that often targeted local government in out-of-the-way cities. In the past year, though, the attacks have taken an alarming turn.

Ethnic militants have gone after civilians outside their homeland and employed a relatively new tactic: suicide.

Prisoner 1741 spent more than seven months inside a jail in southern China, assembling Christmas lights for export to America. Work days stretched up to 10 hours and conditions were tough, he says. One boss used strands of Christmas lights to whip workers and drive production.

Stories about forced labor have trickled out of China over the years, but what makes Prisoner 1741's so remarkable is that he isn't Chinese. He's American. In fact, he's a middle-aged, American sociology professor from South Carolina.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China came up yesterday when we interviewed President Obama. The president recently visited neighbors of China, including U.S. allies. The Chinese have confronted several of their neighbors in disputes over territory, which raised a question for the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Does the United States have an interest beyond its specific alliances in preventing China from dominating East Asia and the waters around East Asia, where China's been making some aggressive moves?

When people turn out to mourn the loss of loved ones, local authorities in most places treat them with respect. Not in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi last week, where 39 people were killed in a terrorist attack the government attributed to Uighers, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Men driving SUVs plowed into a crowded vegetable market in China yesterday and threw explosive devices out of their vehicles. At least 31 people were killed and more than 90 injured. The attack took place in Urumqi, which is the capital of China's northwest region. It has a heavy concentration of Muslims. It is the second major attack in that city in less than a month. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Urumqi and is on the line with us right now. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have been all smiles as they emphasize improved relations between the two countries. Drawing them closer is their shared, tense relationship with the U.S..

Openness doesn't come naturally to China's Communist Party. After all, China is an authoritarian state where people have little right to know how they are governed. But Communist Party schools have been trying to change that over the years by teaching officials how to deal with the news media.

Earlier this month, Qin Chang, a host at Shanghai People's Radio, taught a class on the art of the press conference at China Executive Leadership Academy in Shanghai's sprawling Pudong district and I was invited to watch.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States economy has been the largest in the world since the days when Ulysses S. Grant was president. That was in the 1870s. But a new World Bank report says by one measure that could change by the end of this year: China would take over the top spot this year.

To explain what the new report means and what it doesn't, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt. He's on the line from Shanghai. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Chinese couples who are unable to have children are turning to a surprising place for help these days: America. By hiring American surrogates, Chinese couples get around a ban on surrogacy in China, as well as the country's birth limits.

It also guarantees their children something many wealthy Chinese want these days: a U.S. passport.

Tony Jiang and his wife, Cherry, live in Shanghai and couldn't have children naturally. First, they turned to underground hospitals in China for surrogacy.

It didn't go well.

Jiang says one of the surrogates ran away.

The Chinese mega-city of Shanghai has been cracking down on popular taxi-booking apps, banning their use during rush hour. The government says apps discriminate against older people and those who don't have smartphones.

But economists and some customers see the crackdown as a small, textbook case of something much bigger: the battle between the government and market forces in the world's second-largest economy.

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