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US Expo 2010 Pavilion: When confirmation isn’t confirmation

2009. 3 July

( [UPDATE 7/3: Sure enough, this morning, Xinhua issued a new story, denying that the US had confirmed: "[US participation in Shanghai World Expo Remains Unconfirmed.["]

Earlier today, Chinese media (Xinhua) announced that the US will participate in Expo 2010, running a brief story entitled: “U.S. to participate in 2010 Shanghai 2010 World Expo.” ...Shortly thereafter, at least one international wire – the AFP – took the story one step further and ran the headline: “US confirms participation in Shanghai World Expo.” And by the end of the day, several blogs – including my good friends at Shanghaiist – were running the story as if US participation at Expo 2010 was a done deal.

Well, sorry to say, but it’s not. The Xinhua story, and especially the subsequent AFP distortion of it, are based upon an incorrect understanding of what “confirmation” – a technical term, in this case – means in regard to the US presence at Expo 2010. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, it’s worth noting that the source for the two stories is a July 1 US State Department press release announcing the appointment of Jose Villarreal as the Commission General of the US pavilion. In it, Secretary of State Clinton speaks of the US pavilion as a completed enterprise. And, partly due to the fact that she has been making fundraising phone calls on behalf of the pavilion, it likely will be.

But confirmation is a different matter, altogether. In the case of Expo 2010, confirmation means that the US has signed a “participation agreement” with the Expo organizers. And, despite its support for the authorized pavilion group, the State Deparment has, nonetheless, been consistent in its refusal to sign a participation agreement until all funding is in place to commence construction of the actual US pavilion. Now, it may very well be the case that the State Department has changed this policy (it has changed its official rules related to pavilion fundraising on at least one other occasion). But whether or not the policy has changed, the US still must sign a participation agreement with the Expo 2010 organizing committee. And, so far, no agreement has been signed because the money has not yet been raised (despite a recent US$5 million infusion from Pepsi).

Now, to be fair, the appointment of a Commissioner General would seem to be a pretty strong signal that State – or, at least, Secretary Clinton – is optimistic about the pavilion’s prospects. And, no doubt, she is right to be. In fact, in recent days the Expo organizers have backtracked on their earlier construction ultimatums, with one senior Expo official going so far as to assure potential participants that they can confirm participation “even a week before the event.” No doubt, the US will manage to pull that off. However, due to the inexplicable veil of secrecy that the State Department, and the pavilion group, have thrown over their effort, nobody knows how much of the US$61 million pavilion budget has been raised and, thus, how close the US is to signing a participation agreement. Hopefully, the new US Commission General will be more forthcoming on these matters than his new State Department-authorized colleagues.

[Mea culpa addendum: And yes, for several hours today, I, too, was under the impression that the participation agreement had been signed - until I read the State Dept press release.]

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