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China gears up for the 'economic Olympics'

2010. 16 March

The Spanish pavilion. Photographs: Clifford Coonan, AP, Reuters

by Clifford Coonan

( EXPO FEVER has hit China’s financial capital, Shanghai, as the city gears up for a trade and cultural event that is being billed the “economic Olympics”: the World Expo.

The Expo is on track to be the biggest world fair on record, despite the global economic downturn. Taking the theme “Better City, Better Life”, the Shanghai World Expo is expected to give business in the city a major boost with more than 70 million visitors, half of them from outside Shanghai, coming to see the show during its six-month run from May 1st to October 31st.

Heavy rain and freezing temperatures are perhaps not the best context for viewing the Irish pavilion, but it is really taking shape – in contrast to three months ago when there were only a few girders to be seen.

Gordon Wu, senior project manager for SIP, who is overseeing the Irish project, seems a lot less anxious than when we first met, as does Michael Bradley, general manager of Irish architecture firm Henry J Lyons, which is building the pavilion.

With three exhibition areas, a VIP centre, and opportunities to explore Irish history and contemporary issues, the pavilion will have a strong cultural and business focus, says John Lynam, deputy commissioner general of the Irish pavilion.

“It’s a platform for business. If you walk in you’ll see a lot of images from Ireland. We hope the tourism industry can benefit from that. It’s very visual and the impression will be about how green Ireland is, and visitors will walk out saying how Ireland is a beautiful country,” he says.

No one knows how many will visit the World Expo, but between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors are expected at the Irish pavilion each day, and there is capacity for 1,000 to 2,000 visitors per hour.

Ireland’s profile will also be boosted by the Porterhouse pavilion. The microbrewery will serve porter and food to visitors and will act as a de-facto Irish pavilion due to its strong Irish elements.

“The Expo will mainly be an attraction to Chinese visitors. When you open your pavilion doors you don’t know who will visit. The big challenge will be getting to deliver the message to people who will one day perhaps visit Ireland or send their children to school there or buy an Irish product,” says Lynam.

Eoin Murphy, who heads up the Irish expatriate group Le Chéile, has high expectations for the event.

“The Expo is going to be absolutely amazing,” he says. “I don’t know if you can do this anywhere else in the world. The Olympics was incredible and that was for three weeks. This one has to be sustained over six months.”

Along the elevated expressways and busy shopping thoroughfares of China’s biggest city, painting work and renovation goes on at a frantic pace behind vast scaffolding.

There are also efforts to ensure everyone puts on a polite public face for the event. Campaigns are under way to stop spitting and to discourage local residents from walking the streets in their pyjamas while visitors are in town. It’s like the Olympics all over again, even down to the efforts to improve the quality of the English language used on road signs.

Expo will cost about one billion yuan (€110 million) to stage, according to city planners, but they believe that any losses will be offset by an increase in the city’s gross domestic product (GDP) in coming years, as well as increased income from tourism and hotels.

Huang Yaocheng, a leading Expo adviser, expects Shanghai’s GDP to grow by about 6.5 percentage points as a result of the event and says the most important goal for holding the Expo is to push forward the process of urbanisation.

To get to the Expo site, you drive to the west of the city, about half an hour’s drive from downtown Shanghai.

Tens of thousands of people were relocated to make way for the Expo. The site is on both sides of the Huangpu river, but the biggest section will be on the Pudong side, an urban area that only 20 years ago was largely marshland but is now home to Shanghai’s futuristic skyline.

Construction work is going on at a furious pace on the site, which is spread over 5km (three miles). Of the 242 countries taking part, 42 are constructing their own purpose-built pavilions, while others are joining with regional partners in giant halls representing continents, including many African and Latin American states. Another 42 countries are renting prefabricated kit pavilions.

The first thing you see as you approach the site across one of the bridges spanning the Huangpu is the Chinese pavilion, which dominates the skyline. The vast edifice is one of five permanent structures that will remain after the Expo ends. The other permanent buildings include the Performance Centre, Expo Centre, Theme Pavilion and Expo Boulevard.

Most of the pavilions will be disassembled and many of them will be sold to be used again in their home countries.

As well as providing an international platform, the Expo is important for the Chinese as it allows it to showcase its advances, particularly in areas such as scientific and technological innovation, where there is a perception that it lags the world.

Some developing countries had difficulty getting funding together and are being helped out with funding by the organisers. The Expo committee is leaving nothing to chance.

The Expo really began with the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, which was held in the Crystal Palace in London in 1851.

It has given us some of the world’s great landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, which debuted at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889.

Spain held the Expo and the Olympics in 1992 and used both events to show how it had become a modern democratic EU member after years of Fascist rule by Gen Francisco Franco.

The Expo has its critics, who say it is a waste of money, but its defenders argue that it has cultural importance and says a lot about how host countries want to present themselves.

These kinds of debates hold very little water in China, however. Such large-scale public events are backed with wild enthusiasm by the local population, who are delighted to have the attention lavished on their city and pleased for another opportunity to showcase China’s rise in recent years.