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What Taxi Conversations In Shanghai Say About A Changing China

NPR reporter Frank Langfitt stands next to the taxi he used to give free rides to strangers in Shanghai to investigate shifts in China's social and political paradigm.
Courtest of Frank Langfitt
NPR Reporter Frank Langfitt gave free taxi rides to better understand the changing social and political dynamics of China.

Reporter Frank Langfitt was no stranger to China when he started the job of NPR Shanghai correspondent in 2011. Langfitt had worked for a newspaper in Beijing from 1997 to 2002, but the country he returned to on this new assignment was vastly different from the one he had lived in before.

The intensity of growth had slowed; government corruption had increased; and growing social inequity was palpable. As he started to report on what he saw, Langfitt found that his stories were missing the heart and depth he needed, so he came up with a creative idea: offer free taxi rides in exchange for conversation.

He outfitted a Toyota Camry with a sign in Mandarin that translated to “Free Loving Heart Taxi” and started to pick up passengers. He met a cast of characters ranging from a pajama salesman named Chen to an investment banker named Ashley who shared their lives and stories with him in rides across the city. He continued to develop those relationships over the course of years and documents the conversations and insight in his new book “The Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China” (Public Affairs/2019).

'Chinese people are very pragmatic. As long as they feel things are going reasonably well economically they will put up with a lot. No matter how much repression there is, these days look vastly better than what life was like under Mao,'- Frank Langfitt, NPR's London Correspondent

Host Frank Stasio talks with NPR London Correspondent Frank Langfitt about what conversations in a taxi illuminate about the most populous country in the world. Langfitt will be in conversation with WUNC General Manager Connie Walker at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh Wednesday, June 12 at 7 p.m.


Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.