From his home base in Shanghai, Frank Langfitt keeps track of a wide swath of North and East Asia. He's recently back from Myanmar, where he went for (mostly) fun. Lately he's covered how childless Chinese are turning to American surrogates, what a ban on a taxi app says about China's economy, the missing Malaysian airliner and a mass stabbing in Yunnan province.
His beat also includes fun stories that offer a different perspective on life in China, such as a new restaurant in Shanghai that serves American-Chinese food, why it took him four times to pass his Chinese driver's license test and why Sherlock and House Of Cards top China's must-see TV list.
He fielded questions about life in Shanghai, pollution in China and how much ketchup goes into sweet and sour sauce during his Reddit Ask Me Anything on Wednesday.
On the biggest challenges he faces as a Western journalist in China:
Trust is a big issue, although I think it is getting better. When I first started in the 1990s, people weren't used to foreign reporters and were leery. Now, they're more comfortable with us, but the government sometimes tells people were basically spies — not at all true — and that makes it tougher. Also, some people are always afraid all we want to do is write stories that will make China look bad. This is reinforced by the state-run media.
On what he finds most appealing about Shanghai:
The pace of life and the diversity of the city. It's really fast-paced and dynamic, people are always on the move. Then you have the contrast of the architecture. The old French homes, the neo-classical architecture of the Bund and then, across the river, the space-age sky-line of Lujiazui. The city is incredibly cinematic, which is why so many recent films (from Her to Mission Impossible 3 and the latest [James] Bond movie) have been shot there.
On what surprised him most in the story of the Chinese-American restaurant in Shanghai:
What surprised me the most was all the American ingredients that went into the dishes I never would have imagined. My favorite moment was looking into a bubbling vat of sweet and sour sauce and finding out it was one-third Heinz ketchup.
On why China's ruling party still calls itself communist when it's really not:
The Communist Party knows it is not communist, but can't dump the name because it is key to its legitimacy. There is a story — perhaps apocryphal — in which the former Premier Zhu Rongji asked an American politician what was the one thing the Communist Party could do to change its image in the eyes of Americans. The politician said: "Change the name." Zhu shook his head and said they just couldn't do that. Chinese people are supremely pragmatic, much to their credit, and they are happy to take advantage of a capitalist-style economy that helps them improve their lives and are less hung up on what things are called.
On how he learned Chinese and what drew him to China:
I learned Chinese the hard way, mostly on the street. Which for the first couple of years was thoroughly humiliating. I actually got the idea for China by talking to my father in the early 1990s and asked him what the most important country on the planet would be in the future, besides the U.S. He paid attention to economics and growth rates and said: "Go to China!" Really appreciate his wisdom.
On why so little reporting is done from the perspective of top business, security political leaders (asked by a Chinese Redditor):
You are Chinese. I'm not. It is much harder than you would think. Most officials and many people who are successful do not want to talk into a tape recorder held by a foreign reporter. They see no upside and I'm not sure they are wrong. That said: I do talk to factory owners, who I find fascinating, as well as businessmen, but when you move into more sensitive areas, they tend to clam up.
On how bad the smog in China is:
It depends on where you are. Beijing is at times not habitable for creatures with lungs. There is no way to exaggerate conditions there. Shanghai is much better, largely because we are on the East China Sea and the winds clear out the smog. We have lots of blue sky days and all the glass and steel shimmers and the city looks great. Back in December, though, we had terrible air and we stayed inside the apartment for four days and just blasted the air filters. ...
I rarely wear a mask. Shanghai pollution is not that bad. Also, most Chinese don't wear masks, so I don't want to look like a wuss.
On traveling to Burma:
You should go to Burma. And go soon. Things are changing. The main circuit tour for a week is Yangon-Inle Lake- Bagan. I found the place fascinating on several levels. In three years, people have gone from being afraid to talk about the government to being incredibly blunt. The contrast with china is very striking. The other thing is that Yangon feels like it's about 30 years behind the rest of Southeast Asia: no foreign brands, fading British colonial architecture — still standing — but also a bustle to life. You'll have fun.
On his favorite story, and the saddest and the funniest stories he's covered:
Funniest was a story about a senior-citizen lonely hearts club who took over the cafe at an IKEA in Shanghai. Dozens of people would come for the free coffee, take over the cafe. The IKEA officials were frustrated, but didn't know what to do. It was fun to hear Chinese seniors talk about their dating patterns and how they had turned IKEA into the equivalent of a singles bar. Saddest: maybe a man who lit himself on fire to protest the destruction of his home by the government to build a park. There were at least 50 similar immolations in recent years. Favorite: the lost herds of South Sudan. Did this when I covered East Africa. Got to spend five days tracking elephants by helicopter in a part of South Sudan, which was essentially Africa before colonization. Amazing landscape. Felt like I was 200 years in the past.