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Chinese officials open Shanghai Expo

2010. 30 April

by Andrew Higgins
( Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday opened the most lavish and expensive world's fair in history, a gargantuan event attended by 189 countries that Chinese leaders hopes will showcase their nation as potent but unthreatening world power.

China has spent eight years and more than $50 billion preparing for Expo Shanghai 2010, the country's first world's fair. It also launched the biggest security operation in China since the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The opening ceremony, held in a space-age conference hall shaped like a flying saucer, featured a song by Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan, Austrian waltz music, a performance by pianist Lang Lang and a rendition of Puccini's Nessun Dorma by Italian pop tenor Andrea Bocelli. A spectacular barrage of fireworks along the Huangpu River and a light show followed. A flotilla of boats carried the national flags of the attending nations. The Chinese character for peace flashed from a huge digital screen on the riverbank. Beethoven's Ode to Joy boomed from giant speakers.

Jean-Pierre Lafon, president of the Bureau International des Expositions, a Paris-based bureaucracy that supervises world's fairs, drew snickers from the mostly Chinese audience with a speech that mixed French, English and barely intelligible Chinese. The Shanghai Expo, he said, "illustrated the emergence of China in the 21st century."

Speaking for the Chinese leadership, Wang Qishan, a member of the ruling politburo, said the Shanghai Expo would "open the great door to the future" and promised a "more open China." Police closed off streets around Shanghai and shut down most of the city's Pudong financial zone ahead of the opening ceremony, which was attended by about 20 foreign leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni.

Human Rights Watch, in a statement issued in Washington, said Shanghai authorities had raided the homes of prominent government critics and denied media accreditation to a Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily, which is often critical of Beijing.

China's tightly controlled media have provided blanket coverage of the run-up to the Shanghai Expo, which continues until the end of October and is expected to draw roughly 70 million visitors. Under orders from the Communist Party's propaganda department, Chinese media have downplayed a story that has fascinated and appalled ordinary Chinese in recent days: a series of brutal knife attacks. A mass stabbing Thursday in a kindergarten in the province next to Shanghai was the third such attack in less than a month.

The Expo's opening ceremony, though extravagant, was more low-key than that held in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games. Shanghai originally planned a bigger show but scaled it back slightly so as not to upstage Beijing.

Everything about the Shanghai jamboree is super-size, most prominently the China Pavilion, a red upside-down pyramid with floor space equivalent to 35 football fields. That makes it about 30 times the size of the Canadian-designed U.S. showcase, which is tucked away in a corner of the main Expo site.

"The obvious conscious message is that China has arrived," said Jose Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer recruited by the Obama administration in July to salvage floundering U.S. plans for the Shanghai Expo. "We are basically celebrating China's emergence as a world power."

Villarreal, who was named U.S. commissioner general to the event, joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in raising $61 million from U.S. companies to finance the American pavilion, which -- to China's dismay -- was nearly abandoned at one point for lack of funds. "We were going through one of the worst financial crises in history, and it was hard to get the attention of corporate leaders," Villarreal said.

On Thursday, China signaled its delight that the United States had finally gotten its act together: Hu visited the U.S. exhibit, met with Mandarin-speaking American students who are serving as guides and "congratulated us on completing our pavilion," Villarreal said.

For China, money has been no object. Unlike the United States, which has begged for private money to fund expos since 1991, when Congress made government funding difficult, China dipped into the deep pockets of the state. It is spending $4.2 billion on the six-month Expo -- and 10 times that if new roads, rail lines and other infrastructure projects are included in the bill. (The last world's fair on U.S. soil, held in New Orleans in 1984, went bankrupt.)

When London hosted the first world's fair in 1851, showcasing Britain as the dominant industrial and imperial power, China's sole contribution was 12 boxes of silk sent by a Shanghai merchant. Karl Marx, who was in London at the time working on theories that would inspire Mao Zedong and which nominally still guide China's ruling Communist Party, deplored the whole affair, known as the Great Exhibition, as an exercise in capitalist excess.

About the only nod in Marx's direction in Shanghai is a second opening ceremony Saturday -- International Workers' Day -- to open the Expo's vast riverside sites to the general public.

U.S. reliance on corporate sponsors has presented "unique difficulties," Villarreal said, noting that all other major countries have full-time government-funded teams that turn up at each world's fair. "We invent the wheel every time," he said.

While throngs of Chinese with advance tickets waited for hours earlier this week to get a sneak preview of China's already operating national exhibit, American contractors were still connecting wires and unpacking boxes inside a hall dominated by the corporate logos of sponsors.

The U.S. pavilion -- motto: "Rising to the Challenge" -- features a movie house, a big room filled with stands promoting the companies that are footing the bill and a fast-food joint run by Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. The United States has also signed some big-name acts, including musician Herbie Hancock, who will perform next month.

Early reviews of U.S. efforts from ordinary Chinese have been mostly lukewarm. "There are too many corporate logos," said Sam Feng, a 30-year-old Shanghai resident. "I thought the USA would have some brilliant and exciting stuff. . . . Except for buying some souvenirs, I can't think of anything special about it."

China's pavilion has also stirred some grumbling. There have been complaints that its design was cribbed from a Japanese exhibit in Spain in 1992. The Chinese designer denies this.

Zhou Hanmin, deputy director of the Expo's organizing committee, said China is not trying to show off by building a gigantic national pavilion. It needs the space to house exhibits from 31 provinces and cities, which each have bigger populations than many countries. Moreover, big as it is, the China Pavilion will be able to accommodate only about 8 percent of the expected 70 million visitors, he said.