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Blunt talk from China on the US Expo 2010 pavilion

2009. 13 May

( Quite a bit of discussion on Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, on whether or not US interests are served by building a pavilion for Shanghai’s Expo 2010. That’s good: Americans need to be thinking seriously about this issue. So far, however, the Shanghai and Beijing governments have been unusually reticent about why they think the US should attend (beyond general statements that the US will "regret" it we don’t), and that’s given the debate a bit of an incomplete feel.

Thus, I was quite interested to learn of a May 7 editorial on this very subject which appeared in the influential state-owned China Youth Daily, and People’s Daily.

So far as I’ve been able to determine, an official English translation hasn’t yet appeared, but thanks to the (heretofore unknown to me) Watching America site, we have an unofficial one, here. Chinese, or English, the editorial does not mince words:

The lack of enthusiasm in America has something to do with its national traditions. American has traditionally pursued isolationism and is only concerned with itself rather than the outside world. Even though things changed after the second world war, on the whole, Americans still believe devoutly that “all politics are local,” and the congressmen only care about things that affect their own district. Naturally they do not approve of allocating money for this exposition.

I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time reporting on the US Expo pavilion, and in my experience, the argument against usually goes something like this: the US already has a significant commercial and cultural presence in Shanghai, and in China, and with so much going on in the world - and in the US - isn’t there a better place to spend the US$61 million that the current, troubled US pavilion team is trying to raise? An unrelated argument, but one that is taken seriously in various quarters (including, some quarters of the US State Department) is that the US would be merely be “feeding the Chinese propaganda machine” if it builds a stand-alone Expo pavilion.

In response, many - if not most (in my experience) - US defenders of a US pavilion resort to the face-slap defense (for evidence of this argument’s popularity, click here). That is, a failure to attend Expo 2010 will be perceived as a slap-in-the -ace by the Chinese people (and the CCP), and Sino-US ties will be damaged accordingly.

The People’s/Youth Daily editorial addresses and dismisses both sides in a rather unexpected manner:

It is worth noting that some media have stated incorrectly that the U.S. has not decided to attend exposition due to financial difficulties. The Associated Press reported that if the United States is absent from the world expo, China will take it as a slap in the face. Experts in China also remarked that America is worried that the absence will hurt Sino-U.S. relations and will harm America’s commercial investment interests in China.

If you read the sentences above carefully, you’ll find something worth thinking about: America’s absence is not “slapping China in the face,” rather, the absence makes China feel as though it’s being slapped.

The connotation is important: Whether the United States attends the expo is not important to America; but it is particularly important to China. These different views will cause unnecessary conflict.

In fact, whether the United States attends exposition or not has little to do with the success of the expo.

So why then, from the point-of-view of two highly influential government-run newspapers, should the US attend the Expo?

Whether the United States attends the exposition or not has little to do with China saving face or Sino-U.S. relations, but is related to its commercial interests … [I]n 1964, the New York World Expo showed off the American technological advantage, and because of China’s economic boom, China will undoubtedly play a leading role in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. If America is absent, how will people view America’s current international status? The Shanghai expo is more important than the expos in other countries, because it will be hosted in the biggest city in the country with the third largest economy. If America is absent, it will damage American interests in China.

The complete editorial is worth a read , especially for those Americans who believe that national ambivalence justifies non-attendance (somewhat related: a friend challenged me to choose which matters more to most Americans, the America’s Cup, or Expo 2010; I conceded the former). It doesn’t. In any case, at some point, hopefully, the State Department, other relevant agencies, and even Congress will exert some quality leadership to pull the US pavilion out of the gutter in which it is currently stuck.

[For the record: The People's/Youth Daily editorial references a piece that I reported last month for the Atlantic.]