In the past two decades and especially since Xi Jinping's ascent as CCP General Secretary, it has become clear that China will challenge the US’s place as a hegemon in the coming years. Tensions are not only rising internationally between East and West, but the citizens of China are becoming more and more disillusioned with both American ideals and their own administration. Frank Langfitt, current NPR London correspondent and author of Shanghai Free Taxi spent a great deal of time in Shanghai as a correspondent and in 2013 spent a year recording interviews in his taxicab. The stories and statements he collected document this disillusionment through a series of casual interviews unlike any other political reporting.
Langfitt has worked in Shanghai on and off since the 1990s, when he was the Shanghai correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. He notes that at that time, there was great admiration for the United States by the Chinese nationals he encountered. As he recalls from 1997, a woman he spoke with wondered, “Why is America so rich?” But the attraction of China to American values is a cycle and has declined from its 1989 peak. The denouement became apparent after the 1999 Chinese Embassy bombing in Belgrade, after which massive protests of over 20,000 people erupted outside the US embassy in Beijing. Admittedly, these protestors were facilitated by the Chinese government, but Langfitt notes a real sense of frustration over the injustice of the bombing. Further disillusionment was provoked by the 2001 Hainan spy plane incident, and again by the 2008 financial crisis. The latter was especially irritating: the US had long lectured China (among other nations) on how to properly manage their financial systems, yet they had caused a worldwide financial meltdown.
Langfitt returned to Shanghai in 2013 after stints as a correspondent for NPR in Washington and then East Africa. Drawing inspiration from his time as a taxi driver in his hometown of Philadelphia, he developed his own unique style of reporting. But he was unable to secure a taxiing job as a foreign national. Instead, he began driving citizens around Shanghai for free and gently steered recorded conversations about PRC politics. The difference in sentiment from his early years with the Baltimore Sun was obvious. Now, people were questioning the value of electoral democracy. One passenger, Ashley, stated “I think if you give people power, you have to prepare for stupidity because most people are ignorant,” reflecting on her observation of the American political system while pursuing an MBA in the US. Another passenger, a lawyer named Ray who became a regular of Langfitt’s, admired American democracy and especially the American separation of powers, but felt that over the last 10 years America has tried to hem in China. Specifically, he pointed to the South China Sea, where he felt that the PRC has a right to claim those islands, especially since they now have the resources to properly steward them. But now, America will not allow it, “just like a big boy in class, bullying others.” No longer does the general sentiment among Chinese citizens reflect an admiration of America; the question isn’t “Why are Americans so rich?” but now, as one passenger asked of Langfitt, “Why do Americans love war?”
Despite the turn away from American ideals, there is not a general sense of hope and engagement by PRC nationals. The last real sense of hope, according to Langfitt, was in 2008 with the ascent of Xi Jinping. The hope was that Xi’s administration would be more open and liberal than past regimes, but as is now apparent, such was not the case. Within a few years, the “great firewall” was put up and dissident Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned along with great consolidation of power by Xi. Furthermore, Langfitt documented a distinct lack of comradery among the Chinese population. A passenger of his named Fifi related a story wherein she injured her knee in a crosswalk and sat there ignored for 25 minutes with traffic passing all around her. No one stopped to help her; she had to call her father to retrieve her. Due to an infamous 2008 Nanjing case where a good samaritan was held liable for the injuries of a woman he helped, many Chinese are generally unwilling to help in a situation like Fifi’s. This sort of behavior has contributed to a sense of disillusionment from within the Chinese population.
Langfitt leaves us with two parting thoughts. Firstly, in this “age of mutual disillusionment,” the governments of the world’s two most powerful countries should be working together to restore a sense of hope rather than blaming each other and sowing global division. Secondly, people should stop using the words “China” and “America” for Xi and Trump’s policies. Just as Trump's actions may not represent the interests of every single American, so too are Xi’s actions not necessarily representative of the interests of every single Chinese citizen.
At the end of his presentation, Langfitt showed some texts from Ray (who commented on the conflict in the South China Sea) asking him to stay safe during the current pandemic and offering to ship masks. Although their two countries may internationally be at odds, it is important to focus on the human.