Thanks so much. Lots of great questions. Enjoyed chatting. See you on the radio . . . and the cell phone . . . and the iPad I cover China and beyond. I'm just back from a trip to Burma (mostly for fun.) Recent stories include the missing Malaysian Airliner and a mass stabbing in Yunnan province.

But I also like to do fun pieces like a new restaurant in Shanghai that serves American-Chinese food and why it took me four times to pass my Chinese driver’s license test. Ask away.


Comments: 86 • Responses: 23  • Date: 

vinhboy16 karma

I just want to say that I am always very impressed with the way NPR report stories from China. I don't know if you are always the one doing it, or it's the other lady (Louisa Lim), but either way, you guys do a very good job.

I do want to ask. When you report on opinions of "regular" chinese people, how do you know that the opinion of the person you are interviewing, reflects the general consensus of the community? Do you survey a group of people, or just pick a random stranger?

flangfitt15 karma

another really smart question. we will look on chinese social media, which can give you a ton of opinion from around the country. sometimes I'll call the people who've posted and interview them. Then, because social media everywhere can be so self-selective, I love to go out to different parts of the city and talk to different types of people. I often find -- probably like the U.S. -- that social media responses in China tend to be more extreme and opinionated while talking to ordinary people on the street tends to provide more nuanced, considered and pragmatic responses.

eginnard10 karma

In your opinion, what has been the most challenging aspect of being a western journalist in China? Have you encountered any resistance from the government?

flangfitt7 karma

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.

theycallmebug6 karma

What do you find most appealing about Shanghai, as a city?

flangfitt6 karma

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 Bond movie) have been shot there.

Rockdio6 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA!

I remember hearing your story about the American Chinese restaurant, on that story what surprised you the most?

flangfitt6 karma

Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it. I had wanted to do a story on the difference between Chinese food and Chinese-American food for years, but could never find the right platform to tell the story. Then Feng and David opened that restaurant and it was a godsend. 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 1/3s heinz ketchup.

aguadito6 karma

Why does China's ruling single party still call themselves Communist when they are so clearly anything but?

They still have Mao on bank notes, yet their modern society is an ongoing contradiction of the values he espoused.

How do everyday Chinese people and the elites reconcile their hypercapitalist current system with their "communist" party government?

flangfitt14 karma

great, great question. 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.

koalaphant05 karma

Is there any one misconception Americans have of the Chinese people/government that you would like to clear up?

flangfitt15 karma

a few. one is that the Communist Party is some rigid, monolithic, dictatorship. It's been a collective leadership for years which means interest groups battle over issues all the time and China can suffer from grid-lock on certain topics that you see in democracies on occasion. of course the huge difference is the public has no direct input.

golf4miami3 karma

How bad is the smog really? Have you had to do a lot to adjust to it?

flangfitt7 karma

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.

jteng243 karma

How "free and open" does the regular Chinese citizen feel? I remember talking to some older Chinese people who had immigrated to Canada who were still a little worried about being openly critical about the Chinese government. In other words, do regular citizens feel safe in being able to speak openly about government policy and issues or is there still a feeling of paranoia?

flangfitt10 karma

with friends and even strangers Chinese are much more open with their political views than they were a generation ago. On a 20 minute taxi ride in Shanghai, you can get a very thoughtful deconstruction of Chinese politics and the party. But if you take out your tape recorder, everything changes.

rkellett3 karma

What English-language blogs or sites are covering China well both for newbies and China hands? Bonus points if they aren't from mainstream media (Economist Analects, WSJ China Real Time, etc.)

flangfitt5 karma

there are a lot of interesting ones that are worth dipping into and they have all kinds of takes. Tea Leaf Nation. ChinaSmack. Chinafile. there are also regional blogs written by foreigners living in China, but their names escape me at the moment.

snackburros3 karma

as someone whose family is mostly consisted of party members or entrepreneurs, I'm wondering why so little reporting is done on the other side of the coin, as in, talking to factory owners, party officials (I know access is an issue, but surely you can find some), law enforcement, and so forth. sure you run the risk of canned answers, but I'm very surprised that npr takes a bottom up approach that doesn't substantially cover the viewpoints of the ones who have 'made it'. why is that? surely you're not in a position where you can't have candid talks with the people actually with guanxi (clout) and connections on a more personal level?

flangfitt7 karma

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.

Keep-reefer-illegal3 karma

What was your favorite story to cover?

What was the saddest?

What was the funniest?

flangfitt7 karma

hmm. good questions not easy to answer. 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.

setfaeserstostun3 karma

Was working in China your first choice or did someone shanghai you out of another location? If so, where would you love to work?

flangfitt9 karma

first choice. most important country in the world -- in my opinion -- other than the U.S.

DogPencil2 karma

Hey, I have a few questions.

  1. Do you wear a mask to protect against pollution?
  2. What is your favorite place in China?
  3. What sort of gear do you use (mic, editing software, etc.)?
  4. Have you and Anthony Kuhn ever enjoyed baijiu together and are you and Kuhn tight with one another?


flangfitt4 karma

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. gear: I carry two microphones, earbuds, a marantz recorder and a cannon D60 camera, because i usually shoot pictures for my stories as well as record the audio. kind of a one-man-band.

flangfitt1 karma

anthony and i are old friends. my wife, julie, is a veterinarian. she used to trim the teeth of anthony's pet rabbit in the 1990s. that's a real bond.

TheNiftyNerd2 karma

What parts of Burma did you visit? I am thinking of visiting my self. What was the most challenging aspect of going there? Best experience in Burma?

flangfitt6 karma

hi. 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 south-east asia: no foreign brands, fading british colonial architecture -- still standing -- but also a bustle to life. you'll have fun

yupDIARRHEA2 karma

If you had to choose one thing, what should I see/do in China?

flangfitt5 karma

In the old days, I would have said go camping on the Great Wall. In 1990s we did it a lot. Would hike up on the wall outside of Beijing and sleep on top of the watch towers. the acoustics in the valley were so good, you could hear conversations in the farm houses below. unfortunately, people trashed the wall during raves, so now there are lots of rules and restrictions. so, back to your question, I would still go to the wall, but try to go way farther out west where it is unreconstructed and you can get a feel for what it was like in the old days.

Jukataaa2 karma


flangfitt9 karma

Not sure what is most disgusting thing i've seen, but kids do relieve themselves on the streets sometimes and this has become a really interesting phenomenon. As more Chinese travel, occasionally this will happen on a subway outside the country, say Hong Kong or Taiwan and it goes viral and creates a big controversy inside and outside the country.

[deleted]2 karma


flangfitt6 karma

Chinese know America much better than we know China and there knowledge is improving. One question i get a lot of in recent years is will the U.S. and China go to war. There is a fear that a conflict between China and Japan over the islands in the East China Sea will draw in the U.S. I've found this sort of talk really unsettling and revealing about how some ordinary Chinese sea the geo-politics of their country's rise.

emmabee332 karma

What was your first journalism job in China ?

flangfitt3 karma

worked for the Baltimore Sun in Beijing in the 1990s. great job. covered mainland China, but also a swath of asia from East Timor to the Khyber Pass. incredible freedom to pursue interesting stories.


Hi Frank, I listen to NPR alot. What is a day in the life of a correspondent like? Do you get assigned something to report on or do you chose something yourself? What kind of audio equipment do you carry around with you?


flangfitt3 karma

days are never the same, which make the job really interesting and unpredictable. sometimes there is big news. for instance: I see pictures on weibo (chinese twitter, more or less) of stabbing victims at a train station in southwest China, jump on a plane and a few hours later, I'm interviewing victims of a mass-stabbing in the hospital, trying to piece together the details. other times, I'm working on long-term stories, trying to persuade sources to speak and piece together an investigative piece. These can take a lot of time, but when they pay off, they're very satisfying. Because there are so many interesting stories in china, we don't get a lot of assignments. as to audio equipment. i have a marantz hand-held recorder, which has a great, built-in mic. it's a really good device for gathering sound and doing interviews without intimidating or freaking people out with big, long microphones. the visuals of radio reporting do matter.

emmabee332 karma

When/how did you learn Chinese and what drew you to China ?

flangfitt7 karma

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.

mschneed2 karma

Do you think, China and Japan will go to a war of some type.

flangfitt6 karma

i really hope not. it would be a disaster. #2 and #3 economies at war in north asia. And #1 economy has defense treaty with #3. Yikes.

hsprklgb1 karma

Do you believe China will overtook US as the most powerful country on the planet?

flangfitt1 karma

no. china's economy has been remarkable, but power is complex and china has almost no soft-power, few diplomatic friends (it's friends include north korea and pakistan. And it has big educational problems, pollution, a political system that most people in china are convinced cannot possibly last. no, i don't see it becoming the world's most powerful country in the foreseeable future.