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As the 2010 World Expo nears, Shanghai glistens

2010. 14 April

A performer looks at the 'Energy Source', a 1.2 ton sphere with 400,000 LED lights that reacts to sound at the Germany Pavilion in the World Expo site. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

by Bill Schiller

( Make no mistake: the Chinese mean to dazzle.

And when the Chinese mean to — they do.

The government has promised to shape World Expo 2010 in Shanghai — what previous generations called a “World’s Fair” — into the largest and most lavish exposition in modern times.

And you can bet your bank account they will.

Ever since the curtain went up on the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, with 2008 men dramatically banging drums in unison — that thunder, and its message, have rumbled around the globe: China has arrived.

Two years later, the message will resonate from China’s biggest and most modern city, starting in May and running through October.

The 2010 Shanghai Expo will be yet another opportunity for the People’s Republic of China to showcase its amazing progress on the international stage.

China is on a roll.

No longer the careful, humble, developing nation, it is now the world’s third-largest economy, America’s biggest banker — jockeying for position with Japan — and a powerful force to be reckoned with on virtually every important issue of our times.

But the message in Shanghai won’t be aimed solely at an international audience.

Yes, there will be reams of video and countless columns of print coverage of the event worldwide.

But the message this time will be aimed — primarily — at the Chinese themselves.

Organizers say that as much as 95 per cent of the more than 70 million tourists expected to attend the expo will be the country’s own citizens.

And what will they see?

On arrival they’ll notice that the most majestic, brilliant and tallest pavilion on the site will be their own.

In a dazzling display of auspicious, almost regal red, and at 69 metres, the Chinese pavilion will dominate the expo’s landscape — big enough to handle 50,000 visitors per day.

They’ll also learn that the expo site itself is 20 times larger than the last expo in 2008, in Zaragoza, Spain — and twice the size of Monaco.

And with the Chinese pavilion built at an estimated cost of $200 million (all figures U.S.) — more than triple what archrival America has spent — the Chinese can expect their venue to outclass the venue from the States.

The U.S. has had to scramble to get theirs done. Its commitment to participate came late and only after direct intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the stalled U.S. pavilion rescued.

By comparison, China’s was done early. One can expect China to shine.

The country’s capacity to mount and manage projects on a massive scale is unparalleled, whether it’s the world’s largest dam — albeit, still roiling with controversy — the best-ever Games, or a world’s fair.

Not to be lost in the glitz and glamour, is the theme of the Expo itself: “Better City, Better Life,” a clear message that speaks directly to the Chinese people about their continually improving living standards.

And to be sure, every day for six months China’s citizens will be bombarded with state media reports reminding them of that progress and reassuring them of their nation’s rising international importance.

Those who come from abroad will obviously be treated to a pleasing array of national pavilions.

But foreign visitors will total only 3.5 million, organizers say, just 5 per cent of the total.

“The 3.5 million target is a minimum, of course,” official spokesperson for the expo Xu Wei told a recent briefing here, adding cheerfully, “the more, the better!”

But the reality is that the massive majority will be Chinese, and that underscores, once again, why the Chinese Communist Party attaches such importance to mass events.

They are powerful platforms for the party to showcase China’s progress to the people — legitimizing its leadership and solidifying support.

As a consequence, the 2010 Shanghai Expo — like the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the 60th anniversary of the birth of modern China under Communist Party rule in 2009 — will serve as a kind of glue, binding the nation in a moment of unified pride.

It matters little that international expositions have diminished in importance in the eyes of the West. Here in China, things are different.

China expert Anne-Marie Brady wrote last year that positive events that cast the country in a good light, and which the government chooses to highlight, might be called “campaigns of mass distraction.”

They aim, said the respected political scientist from New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, to build “positive public opinion for the political system.”

The eight-year “hoopla,” as she called it, building toward the Olympic Games was perhaps the best example of a mass campaign with binding force.

Shanghai’s Expo is likely to be another, she says.

The state will marshal and manage all of its resources to shape public opinion: it controls every TV and radio station, every newspaper and magazine, and even the Internet — although some Chinese bloggers occasionally challenge state authority.


The government has pumped $45 billion into improving the city’s infrastructure, on a par with spending on Beijing in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Shanghai’s famous Bund — the grand avenue that hugs the Huangpu River — has been rebuilt; the metro system has been refurbished and expanded; and the destruction of the old city and the building of the new is a never-ending project.

Building cranes are everywhere.

Anyone who comes to Shanghai — Chinese or foreign — cannot help but be impressed.

Shanghai has always been a notoriously ambitious city. Officials hope the expo will help advance the dream of making it China’s undisputed financial capital — elbowing Hong Kong to the sidelines on the international financial stage — and boosting the city’s reputation as a tourist destination.

But don’t expect a repeat of the splendour and pageantry of the Beijing Games’ opening ceremonies. While those highlighted China’s past, Shanghai’s expo will focus on the future.

Where Beijing emphasized history and culture, Shanghai will push business, science and technology.

But in the end, the message will be the same: China’s power is still rising.