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Liverpool takes a leading role at Shanghai Expo

2009. 15 June

by Mark Thomas
( With less than a year until the launch of Expo 2010, Mark Thomas reports from Shanghai on Liverpool’s preparations to take part:

A first glimpse of the Shanghai skyline can be an intimidating experience for a stranger.

A futuristic, dizzying city of 20m people, its endless forest of skyscrapers includes some of the tallest and frankly weirdest- looking buildings on the planet. Factor in the insane traffic, jamming the bird’s nest tangle of four and five lane highways and overpasses at all hours, and you have an urban landscape out of some dark science fiction fantasy.

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Once you get over the initial culture shock, however, it is a city you can warm to quickly, as you discover the little pockets of charm, elegance and tradition tucked away amid the Gotham City pandemonium.

A glance across the river to the buildings of the Bund, in Shanghai’s historic heartland, and for a moment you could be home, looking across the Mersey at the Three Graces. Suddenly you understand why we are soon to celebrate 10 years as twin city to Shanghai.

At present, Shanghai is if anything more chaotic than usual, as the city goes through its own version of the "big dig", feverishly preparing for the day, on May 1 next year, when the first of 70m anticipated visitors descend on the city for the six- month extravaganza that will be World Expo 2010.

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Liverpool, as the only UK city outside London to have a stand at the Expo, has an enormous opportunity to take full advantage of an event that has been described as the Olympic Games of business.

The Expo site covers a staggering 5.28 square kilometres, on both sides of the Huangpu River which winds its way through the centre of Shanghai. More than 200 nations and international organisations will be represented.

The buildings are well advanced now, although the contents of most of their interiors remain closely guarded secrets. China’s national pavilion, a spectacular hat-shaped structure over 60 metres high, and the 18,000-seat performance centre at which many of the world’s top artists are expected to perform during Expo, look close to completion.

A total of 59 world cities will exhibit at the site, which stands in a zone known as the Urban Best Practice Area. Liverpool’s stand will occupy a pavilion in this zone, alongside Venice, Cairo, and key regional Chinese cities Suzhou and Hangzhou, which will help to ensure massive numbers of Chinese visitors will come to see us.

Our 400 square metre stand will provide a showcase for Liverpool to demonstrate its attractions both as a tourist destination and, more importantly, as a place to do business.

Funded by £1.25m from the North West Development Agency and £300,000 from Liverpool city council, the display will help to position Liverpool as the gateway to the North West, both for businesses and tourists.

The city council, Liverpool Vision and the Liverpool Shanghai Partnership are now working to develop the detailed content for the display, which will carry a consistent central message but will also include six themes which will change through the six months of Expo.

Talks are under way with a variety of private businesses about getting involved in Expo, through sponsorship packages ranging from £7,500 to £100,000.

In such challenging economic times, the inevitable question is: Why should we be seeking to invest so heavily in an enterprise like this on the other side of the world?

There are two enormous opportunities here for the Liverpool city region.

The first is for businesses based in the North West to find new markets in which to develop in the booming Chinese markets.

The second, and perhaps even more significant, opportunity, is to encourage Chinese inward investment into our region.

LIVERPOOL council chief executive Colin Hilton says the potential short-term benefits – an estimated £50m of investment opportunities emerging from Shanghai in the next five years – are just part of the story.

"To have the confidence in the heart of the recession to go out into the world to win business will not only attract business from Shanghai but will bring in economic prosperity from all over the world," he said.

Ian Crawford, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, first moved to China with BP 12 years ago, and understands the changing Chinese business landscape as well as any westerner.

He believes Liverpool has a wonderful chance of attracting investment from China.

"China has lots of money. The big five brands are all state- owned, and there are huge amounts of cash here.

"The time has come for China to go out in the world, and relations between the UK and China have never been better.

"There are no negatives on the horizon at all for the UK. It has been positive since the Hong Kong handover in 1997.

"The UK and Liverpool have done a great job of promoting themselves by being very positive about their pavilions. The Chinese will remember that and be grateful."

There is plenty to support that view from the Chinese perspective, too. Liverpool is a brand familiar to millions of Chinese people thanks to our football clubs and, of course, The Beatles.

Our twin city status with Shanghai is taken very seriously, and our invitation to exhibit at Expo represents a significant step and, perhaps, a significant test of our willingness to engage fully with China.

Mr Luo He Qing, director of the investment promotion department at Shanghai Foreign Investment Development Board, said: "Most Shanghai people know Liverpool because of the famous Liverpool Football Club.

"Another side is that some business people know that in Liverpool there is to be a building named after Shanghai, the Shanghai Tower.

‘LIVERPOOL is the sister city of Shanghai so we have a very strong basis for further economic and commercial co-operation in the future. We will organise many local enterprises to visit Liverpool and we will also welcome friends and business people from Liverpool.

"The Expo is a very big economic stage for Liverpool, because we will have many visitors from Shanghai and other parts of China. If the Liverpool pavilion can attract local attention, it will be very beneficial for them."

The central theme of the Expo is "Better city, better life", reflecting the need for cities to adapt to the needs of growing populations while protecting the environment.

This is a particular concern for China, which is why the urban best practice area is seen as so important, and why north-west companies specialising in environmental work could be particularly well placed to take advantage.

Mrs Chen Jing Xi, department director of the Information Office of Shanghai Municipality, explained: "Since the world has witnessed the fast growth of China’s economy, we face problems of environmental protection and the many problems of big cities.

"From Expo, we can learn something from the experiences of other countries and other regions.

"China has faced some big challenges from imbalance. In China, most places are very poor and people lack electricity.

"Their dream is of urban living in big cities. But the big cities have their own problems."

She said Shanghai was set to benefit from Expo 2010, just as Beijing had benefited from the Olympics in 2008.

"Unlike the Olympic Games, Expo is more focussed on innovation and the creation of ideas. That is a very important sector for promoting the economy and growth of China.

"Shanghai used to be a very big manufacturing base, but now it is changing and growing to develop its tourist industries. We are trying to reduce waste and invest in high technology."

China has spent £1.8bn developing the Expo site and the surrounding infrastructure, and operating costs during the six-month event are estimated at another £1.06bn.

Down on the Expo site, the man charged with ensuring enough visitors buy tickets to ensure operating costs are covered is the remarkably cool and cheerful communications and promotion department director for the festival, Mr Xu Wei.

"Chinese people love to visit the UK.

"Liverpool is a wonderful area, with a lot in common with the Bund in Shanghai, but few people here know that. This is a real chance for Liverpool to promote itself well to Chinese people."

Liverpool council leader Warren Bradley could not agree more. "I think Liverpool for far too many years has been very insular and not willing to spread outside its boundaries," he said.

‘I SEE the world stage of the Expo in Shanghai as being a great opportunity for Liverpool – not Liverpool businesses solely but Liverpool as a city.

"I think it is a brilliant opportunity, and anybody who goes out there representing this city will really raise our aspirations and hopefully bring some of the much deserved development and investment that we hope to get on the back of Shanghai and World Expo 2010."