Frank Langfitt (@franklangfitt) is NPR's international correspondent in London and was previously based in Shanghai, China. His new book is The Shanghai Free Taxi.
When I worked as a newspaper reporter in Beijing in the late 1990s, I received a tip about something extraordinary: China's paramilitary People's Armed Police had shot two farmers to death and wounded 17 while trying to put down a village uprising against high taxes. After confirming details with witnesses by phone, I flew to China's southeast to investigate further. Government agents met me as I stepped off the jetway.
"Welcome, Mr. Langfitt," said a female official, pretending we were old friends, in hopes I wouldn't make a scene.
I figured the government knew my flight number by listening to conversations on my office phone, a common practice. A group of officials, including police, whisked me off to a nearby hotel room for interrogation. I saw interrogations as reporting opportunities, so I answered questions with questions.
"What do you think about these killings?" I asked a young foreign ministry official who monitored me in the hotel room. "Do you think trying to cover it up is the right approach?"
The official, who seemed genuinely disturbed by the killings, stammered uncomfortably. Several hours later, he accompanied me back to the airport for my forced return to Beijing. Just before I boarded the plane, I turned and said: "In the long run, you know this won't work." He looked back at me sheepishly.
Like many Western journalists back then, I thought engagement with China might eventually lead to a more open country and an easier reporting environment for foreign correspondents. So far, the regime has proved me wrong. Harassment of international reporters has ebbed and flowed over the past two decades, but has grown much worse in recent times.
"In the past, there were crackdowns, but you knew the reasons and expected them to end," a bureau chief at a U.S. news organization told the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China in its most recent annual survey of reporting conditions. "What we're dealing with now is a new normal."
For nearly half the survey respondents, that new normal means being followed or having their hotel rooms entered without permission.
Chinese officials are especially aggressive when foreign journalists cover sensitive issues. For example, China blocked new visas for reporters from The New York Times and Bloomberg News, after both organizations ran stories on the wealth of family members of Chinese leaders.
Last year, the Chinese government refused to renew a visa for a journalist with BuzzFeed who had written extensively about the mass incarceration of ethnic Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region in the country's far northwest. Just last week, a journalist with The Wall Street Journal was forced to leave after China didn't renew his visa following the journalist's reporting on a cousin of the country's leader, Xi Jinping. China also rejected a visa request earlier this year for an American journalist who has investigated the Chinese government's political influence operations overseas.
While the government can expel foreign journalists, punishment for Chinese reporters can be far more severe and can include jail terms.
President Xi's government has built a vast surveillance state, which can put people reporters speak with at risk. The regime has cracked down most in Xinjiang, where the government has detained an estimated 1 million Uighurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking people. Chinese officials are trying to prevent independent coverage of the Communist Party's worst mass human rights abuse in decades.
The party is cracking down more broadly around the country because it fears revelations about its behavior could eventually undermine its standing with an increasingly sophisticated population. It sees controlling the narrative at home — and abroad — as a matter of survival.
The growing repression has had ripple effects. While government agents have roughed up some foreign reporters, the atmosphere of repression encourages subtler, more insidious forms, such as self-censorship.
I've spoken to Chinese professors for years about foreign policy and political topics, but now, in this culture of fear, many are far warier than they once were about speaking publicly, even if it's just to say positive things about the regime.
The same is increasingly true of ordinary people. One morning, I eavesdropped on a democracy debate in the back of a taxi. While my fellow Chinese passengers argued for a much freer and more open political system, the cabbie backed the regime, urging patience. After the driver's rousing defense of the Communist Party, I asked his name, but he refused to say, fearing any connection to a political conversation could lead to some unspecified punishment.
In 2012, I flew to the southern boomtown of Shenzhen to look at how the government was building wasteful infrastructure projects to boost gross domestic product while skimming off money. After an interview, I jumped in a cab and headed toward an $8 million-plus pedestrian bridge that was less than 2 years old, but already beginning to crumble.
The cabbie soon noticed a Honda with a dark windshield following us. He hit the accelerator and sped at 70 miles an hour down the expressway, riding the exit and entrance ramps, trying to shake the car, but the man driving the Honda was well-trained and we couldn't lose him.
Finally, we pulled up to the pedestrian bridge for my interviews. The Honda parked a few spaces away. Two men with wraparound sunglasses and earpieces stepped out, as though from central casting. I did my interviews and later learned the agents went door to door, questioning the interviewees on what I had asked.
I don't know why state security agents targeted me that day; at the time, news coverage of government corruption was common. But I figure they had tracked me down using my cellphone, as Chinese agents had done with other correspondents over the years. Afterward, I learned a simple trick for neutralizing cellphone surveillance: Eat a bag of potato chips, wash out the bag and put your cellphone inside. The foil bag blocks electromagnetic fields, preventing GPS updates.
Given the growing repression, getting people to open up was not easy during my five years with NPR in Shanghai. My solution was to create a free taxi service, offering rides in exchange for conversation.
I got the idea from my time as a taxi driver in the 1980s in Philadelphia, where I found passengers were candid and sometimes treated the cab like a confessional.
My Shanghai free taxi turned the normal foreign reporting experience in China on its head — instead of me asking the questions, my passengers sometimes interviewed me.
"Where are you from?" they'd ask. "Why are you doing this? Is this your full-time job?"
I always explained I was a reporter.
"Oh, do you need an assistant?" some would respond. (I didn't.)
And nearly every passenger asked: "Is your wife Chinese?" (She's American.)
When we reached their destination, most passengers asked to exchange contact info on WeChat, China's ubiquitous social media app. Some invited me to dinner.
If I'd been operating traditionally, interviewing them on the street, they might have recoiled. (I once introduced myself to a young Chinese man as a reporter and he actually leaped backward.) But as an American taxi driver, I was a curiosity and my foreign status a rare advantage. Distrust runs high on the streets of China, where people are wary of getting scammed by strangers.
"I think the values taught to you Americans since an early age are among the reasons I trusted you," said Chen, a pajama salesman I met at a ferry stop, who invited me to his home for services at his underground Christian church.
Passengers felt comfortable raising sensitive topics in the taxi. A former high school teacher named Fifi told me she had tried to talk to her students about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre — a topic that is practically impossible to discuss openly these days.
"Some students told me, 'Fifi, maybe it's too dangerous to talk like this ... and we need to pass exams,'" she recalled.
She felt so intellectually stifled that she eventually quit her job.
I drove my taxi around the city with magnetic signs in Mandarin explaining what I was doing. I must have passed scores of cops, but none ever stopped me. Nor did state security agents, who were tasked with monitoring my reporting.
I later learned that one of the agents actually liked the stories. He said he related to the characters.
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