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China At A Crossroads: Nation Faces Challenges In New Age Of Anxiety

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt has just wrapped up a five-year reporting assignment in China. He first covered China in the late 1990s. And he's watched the nation transform over the last couple decades. Before Frank set off for his new post in London, we talked with him about all the changes he's witnessed and the challenges China faces.

We caught up with him in one of the most bustling spots in Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm right here on the river in a place that's called the bund (ph). And if you can kind of imagine - you can relate to this 'cause of your time in London. It looks like actually the waterfront of the Thames. You have all these British neoclassical buildings with columns. There's a clock tower. And I wanted to start here because I was actually here back in the late-'90s.

I was walking with my wife. Back then, though, all the storefronts were empty. There was a lot of dust and furniture piled up. And you could even see clothing hanging in the windows of the banks 'cause there were squatters here. And that was at a time where China's economy was just really getting going.

And at the time, I said to my wife, you know, one day, this is going to be a really - you know, one of the world's great waterfronts.

SHAPIRO: And so the purpose of this interview is to prove that you were correct when you told your wife, someday, this place is going to be amazing (laughter).

LANGFITT: But you know what's really funny, Ari, is it happened so much faster than I thought or anybody thought. I mean, probably by 2003, 2005, the place was transformed. And I'll just describe it. There's a place that sells Rolexes. You have a Waldorf Astoria, a bunch of roof-top bars, a Peninsula Hotel. It's sort of this great example of how the country was transformed economically.

SHAPIRO: So that tells the story of China's boom. In recent years, you've been reporting on perhaps not a bust, but at least slowing growth in China. How indicative is the skyline you're seeing of what's actually going on under the surface?

LANGFITT: Well, I think the skyline looks better than the reality right now. And it feels like we're in an inflection point here that we've never really seen in modern China. I mean, you have this old business model that brought us to this point. It was exports, investment, real estate. But economic reforms have been delayed. President Xi Jinping, he's been spending a lot of time purging his adversaries.

And so there's really kind of a sense of anxiety today about where China's headed.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more but that anxiety. How and where do you see that playing out?

LANGFITT: Well, you really see it - you know, when I came back - I'd been away for nine years. I came back in 2011. And I expected some sort of triumphalism. But when I started talking to people, a lot of people were actually getting green cards to go to the U.S.

They wanted better education for their kids 'cause it's kind of a rogue learning system here. They wanted better air. And they were also getting their assets out because again, this is an authoritarian system, no rule of law. And you really don't know what the future can bring. And since there doesn't really seem to be an exact blueprint of where we're headed, people are just anxious and a little worried.

SHAPIRO: And what does the economy look like now compared to the boom years that you also covered?

LANGFITT: Very, very different. I'll give you an example. I've been traveling in the western part of the country in some of the coalfields. They're in a recession, which we really haven't seen in a very long time. Here in Shanghai, the income gap is staggering. Where I live, in the parking garage below, it's Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Rolls-Royces.

But most Shanghainese I talk to have trouble being able to buy a house because it's so expensive now. And a lot of them feel like they're losing ground, which wasn't true 10, 15 years ago. And there's a lot of pressure now on the government.

I mean, they have to build a new economic model to basically move this country to the next level, something a lot more innovative, consumption-driven in order to provide a much higher standard of living.

SHAPIRO: And if they can't, what happens then?

LANGFITT: I think that's messy. You know, people have gone along with authoritarianism here for a long time 'cause the party delivered on growth. And there's been this contract where, basically, the party said, don't challenge us politically, we'll raise your living standards. But now growth is slowing. There are worsening opportunities for some people.

And there're also greater expectations. And basically, the way the party's responded to this is kind of to double down on repression, which works in the short run. People can be cowed and they can be frightened. But in the long run, it's not really a solution to, like, how do you manage a much more sophisticated, well-heeled and better traveled population that has greater expectations for its own security?

SHAPIRO: Well, when you take a step back as you're about to leave, are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of this country?

LANGFITT: Well, I'll tell you, Ari, I'm very optimistic about the people. I'm so impressed with the capabilities of the Chinese, the sophistication, the thoughtfulness of so many Chinese that I've met in these last five years. I'm more pessimistic, like we were just saying, about the system right now. It can go on for quite a while like this.

Chinese people are very pragmatic are very patient. But it's not a long-term solution. And when you think about this is the second largest economy in the world, we all have a stake in this country doing well. It's a little worrisome.

SHAPIRO: Frank, last question I've got to ask you. You became very well-known for offering free taxi rides in Shanghai and getting some great stories out of that. The black cab drivers in London are pretty tough. Are you prepared to take them on and drive on the opposite side of the road?

LANGFITT: Well, not just yet. I have been getting a little bit of experience driving in London. And recently, I was driving a car with a GPS that had a five-second delay. So I would go through all those roundabouts...

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

LANGFITT: ....But I could never figure out actually how to get out of the roundabout. So I think I have a long way to go in becoming a successful driver in London.

SHAPIRO: Well, good luck, cannot wait to hear your stories from there. NPR's Frank Langfitt on his farewell from Shanghai.

LANGFITT: Thanks a lot, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.