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China still can’t get these big occasions right

2010. 3 May

by Tim Collard (Tim Collard is a retired British diplomat who spent most of his career in China and Germany. He is an active member of the Labour Party.)

( After the Beijing Olympics, this is the next great Chinese spectacular. The whole world has been invited to Shanghai to be amazed at the scale of what modern China has to offer. The fact that China has largely succeeded in steering clear of the worst effects of the global financial crisis, and that credit is still flowing like water there, is likely to make the show even more impressive.

I wouldn’t want to be too cynical about this Chinese effort to sell their country to the outside world. They’ve got a lot to be proud of on the economic front, and, whatever one’s views on the subject of China and the West, it can hardly be disputed that both sides will benefit from increased engagement and mutual comprehension. Besides, it’s always pleasant when a nation makes an effort to show itself from its best side, however much it might be hiding thereby. One is reminded of the spectacle of President Obama’s inauguration, which showed America as it aspires to be, and never mind the carping about the gap between aspiration and reality.

But it never quite goes according to plan. Yesterday’s opening day was marked by endless queues to get through the security controls. The Chinese are not very good at queueing at the best of times, preferring the traditional mêlée, so it must have been rather a trying experience. But it could have been worse: only about half the expected numbers turned up. 350,000 tickets had been sold, and only 200,000 seem to have attended. Why, one might ask, did so many people buy tickets who never meant to come?

I suspect the answer is that many tickets were not sold at all, but distributed to various official organisations for the use of their members. The assumption, no doubt endorsed by the various ministries and Party units, was that all these people would be delighted to go along. In fact, I imagine, most of them preferred a day off: after all, the first seven days of May form one of China’s three main holiday periods. China is no longer analogous to North Korea, where people can simply be corralled into attendance; on the other hand, it has not yet got the hang of establishing what its people do and do not want to do. They just assume that everyone wants to join in any official government whoop-de-do. It was the same in the Olympics, with vast gaps in the audience, not helped by inadequate supplies of food and drink; surely people will just go where they’re told and take what they’re given, won’t they, like in Mao’s time?

And now, of course, they know that if they all go the queues will only be twice as long. Better stay at home and wolf down the fried dumplings, I reckon. I hope they manage to attract the international business people who are the Expo’s real target: because the days of the indigenous rent-a-crowd are over.