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The Biggest Event You Never Hear Of -- But Should

2009. 24 November

by Ambassador Frank Lavin
( In the early morning rain of November 16, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took a side trip from accompanying President Obama to China to visit a construction site in Shanghai. Just hours later, President Obama held a town hall meeting with a group of Shanghai students. These two events might be more closely linked than they first appear. Secretary Clinton's visit was not to just any building site, but to the final phase of construction of the USA National Pavilion for the 2010 Shanghai Exposition (World's Fair).
Although the Fair will not open until May 2010, it is something on which Americans should reflect and, if possible, participate. There are three reasons why the Fair is important and one argument for caution.

The first reason is the Fair itself. The Shanghai Expo could prove to be the greatest combination ever of museums, exhibit halls, theaters, amusement parks, scientific displays, pageants, and cultural performances. It will be the largest World's Fair in history, in terms of number of exhibitors (over 240), amount of acreage (over 1200) and number of visitors (projected at over 70 million.) Since the Fair runs for 6 months, this translates into a daily attendance of around 400,000 - one Woodstock a day for 180 days.) The cost will run over $45 billion, a staggering figure for urban redevelopment. But after all, the 70 million fairgoers will make this six-month event not just the largest World's Fair in history, but the largest gathering in human history.

Second is what the fair says about China. The Fair is a national undertaking for China, with the Director General of the Expo Authority accorded Cabinet rank. Anyone who followed the Beijing Olympics last year understands that China does not embark on these initiatives lightly. This is a national project, one that commands the full attention of the Beijing Government. The Fair is an opportunity for China to make a statement about itself to the world and to its own people. The mammoth size of the fair itself is a statement that China views itself second to no one and will use its budget and power accordingly. This is a statement primarily to a domestic audience, as the 70 million fairgoers will be 90% Chinese, but the world will take note. Some might conclude that China is overly concerned about message control or that Chinese leadership is insecure in the need to make such a statement. I believe more will draw a positive conclusion, that as the host for the largest event in the world, it would ill-behoove China to be casual or sloppy about how it presents itself. China is a proud nation and wants to put all the effort it can into hosting the world.

The third reason is what the fair might say about the United States. Every time I visit China, I see a nation that is hungry to learn more about America. The Fair is a chance to share our values, our products, our ideas, and our culture. In short it is "soft power" at its best and that is the reason why Secretary Clinton has taken a leadership role in turning the USA Pavilion into reality. The logic here is that the values Americans cherish are in many respects universal values, shared by people around the world. This was summed up by President Obama in his meeting last week with Shanghai students when he called for freedom of the Internet. Why shouldn't the USA Pavilion include a discussion of the Bill of Rights? Why shouldn't it discuss the long struggle in America for political participation and Civil Rights? Why shouldn't we explain how religious freedoms play an important role in the lives of most Americans? One survey about the Expo by Ogilvy & Mather China showed that the USA Pavilion is expected to be the most popular foreign exhibit for Chinese fairgoers, second only to the Chinese Pavilion. World Fairs are enshrined in American consciousness, but with 60,000 square feet of history, technology, and culture on display in China, the USA Pavilion next year will redefine the experience.

Finally, there is one point to keep in mind about what the Fair is not. The Fair is not a policy mechanism. It is not a platform for trade negotiations, though it will see the introduction of new products. It will not solve human rights issues, though it should strengthen the discussion. It will not guarantee agreement on environmental issues, but it will certainly increase awareness. Whatever complaints or criticisms one has regarding China before the Fair will probably be in place when the Fair is over. But maybe we will have chipped away at some of these issues. And maybe at this largest peaceful gathering of nations in history, Americans will have the opportunity to learn a few things as well.

Americans should come to the fair proud of our story, humble in awareness of our short-comings, willing to learn from others and share experiences, and most of all, ready for fun. See you at the Fair.