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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

China's infamous bureaucracy has bedeviled people for ages. But in the past decade, daily life in major Chinese cities has become far more efficient. That's the impression from NPR's Frank Langfitt, who has spent a lot of time in China over the years. He sent this postcard from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When I worked in Beijing in the 1990s, many reporters had a driver, and the reason wasn't because they couldn't drive, but because they needed somebody to deal with China's crippling bureaucracy. I had a guy named Old Zhao, and he would drive around for days, going to different bureaus, to pay our different bills, often being abused by functionaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's 15 years later, and I'm in Shanghai, and I'm paying my bills today, and all I have to do is walk across the street to a convenience story.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: The electric bill is a lot more expensive. It's about 150 bucks, but it's really easy to pay. Another area where efficiency has improved in China is rail travel. Here's an example from a recent trip.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Harmony. I would like to send our regards to you on behalf of all the crew members of this train.

LANGFITT: If you wanted to get from Beijing to Shanghai back in the old days, often, you'd take a night train, and it would take you maybe 12 hours. These days, there's a bullet train that can do it in five. I'm actually on that bullet train right now heading home to Shanghai, and I'm going about 190 miles an hour. It's a very comfortable ride. I have a wireless card on my laptop, and I can get a lot of work done. Often, I write stories on the train.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The train will soon be stopping at the destination, Shanghai Hongqiao station, in a minute.

LANGFITT: China has become more efficient because of technology and market competition in the economy.

JIM MCGREGOR: Jim McGregor. I've been in China for just about 25 years now. I'm a consultant, author and public speaker.

LANGFITT: McGregor has witnessed lots of progress, especially in the private sector. Some government-run operations are still stuck in the old ways, including some airports.

MCGREGOR: I flew down here yesterday from Beijing to Shanghai, and it was snowing in Beijing. What was crazy is there's no information. You go to the gate, but they keep changing the gate, but there's no electronic system. This modern Beijing airport that is state of the art, but there'll be a cardboard board saying go to gate 42. You go to gate 42. It says go to gate 20. So you've got to kind of stay awake and run around to see where they've changed your gate. These are the airports run by the government.

LANGFITT: And in other parts of daily life, efficiency runs the gamut. McGregor recalls it took 18 months to close his daughter's account at the flagship, state-run Bank of China.

MCGREGOR: We couldn't do it till she came back here on vacation because they had to have her standing in front of them.

LANGFITT: But at China Merchants Bank, which emphasizes customer service, the staff go out of their way to help me fill out forms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING KEYPAD)

LANGFITT: That's a keypad at the teller's window, asking for my password. That's very nice. I wrote my numbers down, and they were illegible. And he fixed them for me. He rewrote them. Ten, 15 years ago when I did that sort of thing, they just scowled at me, threw things back.

The sector that probably best illustrates how efficient China has become and how far it still has to go is the Internet. On websites like 360buy.com, it's possible to order everything from a piano to cosmetics and have it delivered to your door next day for free. But because of the Communist Party's cyber controls, surfing foreign websites, even using Google, can range from slow to impossible. Sometimes it's so bad, you can't even log on to your email. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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