Shanghai Free Taxi is the best book I’ve read that shows how ordinary Chinese think and live. Author Frank Langfitt, who worked as Shanghai correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) from 2011-2016, discovered a delightfully innovative way to gain insights into ordinary Chinese minds: he offered free taxi rides. Fluent in Mandarin after spending five years in Beijing as Baltimore Sun correspondent, Langfitt asked his passengers questions and recorded their responses as they opened up with surprising candor.
Unlike journalists who focus mainly on China’s national leadership, Langfitt went out of his way to report what he heard from citizens—whether or not it reflected his/our American values. His reporting reflects the complexities and nuances of opinions of thoughtful Chinese.
Several of those he befriended found a way to move to the United States, including one Peking University graduate who earned a business degree in the US. Disillusioned with Trump—and dismayed by what she observed about the flaws of U.S. democracy—she decided to move back to China, “a land of opportunity and possibility.” Despite the self-censorship she found among her Chinese friends, everyday living in Shenzhen was much better than she expected—convenient, lucrative, and comfortable.
President Xi Jinping, Langfitt observed, remains widely popular within China—even after his 2018 decision to eliminate term limits and become president for life. Ordinary citizens admire Xi for his campaign against corruption, his emphasis on the environment, and his work to reduce poverty.
Like many Americans, Langfitt feels conflicted about China in the era of Xi Jinping. Despite his worries about the country’s growing repression, rising nationalism, and neutering of the news media, he feels upbeat about the Chinese people he met, many of whom are living the American Dream—in China. Most expect the future to be “yue lai yue hao”—better and better—because that has been their lived experience.
Langfitt concludes that, “despite some of Xi’s authoritarian policies, many Chinese are happy with the president and . . . optimistic about the future” – and likely to continue to support Xi if he manages the economy well. That’s a perspective that we Americans don’t often hear.