Expo Draws Countries Eager for Business in China

BY Ray Suarez  June 2, 2010 at 5:13 PM EST

Several countries pulled out all the stops to impress visitors recently at the Shanghai 2010 Expo, showing off new technology and national treasures. Our reporting series from China continues on Wednesday’s NewsHour, when Ray Suarez examines how the Expo illustrates China’s leverage in today’s global marketplace. Watch a preview and read a reporter’s notebook from Ray below:

There’s never been a world’s fair in a developing country before. With Shanghai’s World Expo 2010, the Chinese set some ambitious goals for themselves. They wanted to wow both the world community that sees the fair on television and in newspapers, and the millions of Chinese who will make their way to the banks of the Huangpu.

It is fascinating to be in China at this exact moment. The country is perched on the knife-edge; self conscious about what it sees as its past humiliation at the hand of foreign powers, proud of everything it’s accomplished in a very short time, wanting very much to show the world it is capable of organizing an exhibition of this kind, and show that it is the equal of other places in the world.

But even with all the excitement and publicity connected with the opening of the World Expo, the grounds felt like they were built for far more people than will really show up. Organizers dropped a blizzard of free tickets on Shanghai, yet the turnstiles largely stood empty, shuttle buses around the grounds had plenty of seats, and, even amidst the opening rush, parts of the site felt empty.

In the first month of opening, attendance is falling short of the rate it will have to reach in order to hit the 70 million mark set as a goal between now and October 31.

As with any international fair, countries try hard to impress: the pavilions range from the eye-popping and high-tech to the modest and frugal. Since each pavilion is developed in isolation for its particular lot on the fairgrounds, the result is something of a visual jumble. Each national exhibit shouts to the street, “Hey, look at me!” without too much regard to what those other guys are doing next door.

The standouts? I couldn’t name them all, plenty of countries built pavilions that were meant to be daring, visually distinctive, and in keeping with the fair’s theme, “Better City. Better Life.” Russia’s folk patterns, Romania’s floating auditorium seating for watching folk performances, the United Kingdrom’s “Seed Cathedral,” and Italy’s juxtaposition of ancient and modern themes were all memorable.

The United States pavilion looked like the headquarters for a mid-size corporation in a suburban industrial park. While dozens of nations used the Expo as a chance to make an impression on curious Chinese tourists, the United States built a movie theatre. Granted, it’s a very nice movie theatre, but it not only falls short of what the United States is capable of, it falls short of what other, smaller, poorer nations have done.

The representative of the fair I spoke with predicted that 90 percent of the attendees would be citizens of China, about the average for an international exposition. I thought about that statistic as I spent parts of three days at the fair… there were urban and rural people, smart young Shanghainese and poorer provincial visitors.

It reminded me of my own visits to a World’s Fair, in 1964 and 1965 in Queens, N.Y. We got to use a videophone. We saw General Motors’ visions of the 21st century–a little off, but hey, we’re only ten years in!

I waited on a long line with my mother to see Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican pavilion. It was thrilling for this 8-year old, I never could have imagined that less than 20 years later I would see that same grieving Virgin Mary in white marble a few times a week, with a Vatican City press pass in my pocket.

As with Shanghai, excited day-trippers pull out their cameras to snap pictures of each other in front of the best-known pavilions at the fair. A black and white photo in an old album has a shot of me with my arm around my then 4-year old brother in front of the Unisphere, the gleaming globe surrounded by fountains at the crossroads of the fair.

We weren’t that different from the happy Chinese crowds gawking at the tiara of a Dutch princess, applauding for Romanian folk dancers, or grabbing good spots at the curb for an approaching parade. Our family was optimistic, picked up by the gathering momentum of growing prosperity of the 1960s. Countries around the world had worked hard to show off their best selves to the citizens of one of the world’s great powers. We assumed we would never get to see many of these places in person, and were glad for the chance to have these places come to us.

Yes, as dictatorial as 1964 fair chieftain Robert Moses could be, he had a lot less riding on the success of the fair than many political analysts are saying of the 2010 expo leaders. Commentators take a look at the 4 billion dollars of direct fair expenditures and 54 billion in infrastructure spending throughout Shanghai, and the clamor of the world’s nations to be a part of the fair and see a political calculus at work. Nothing less than the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power is at play here… it’s said that as important as it is for China to show the world it can pull off a major international event, it’s even more important for the men in charge in China to show their own citizens that their guidance of the state is competent, and has improved their lives.

Though 18,000 families were relocated to clear the fair site, and no public consent was sought in spending $58 billion dollars to throw this shindig, it was hard to find people unhappy to be at the Expo, or unimpressed by the sights. And of the thousands of children I saw at the fair, with parents and in big school groups, many will be like that kid in Flushing Meadows in the mid-60s: a world that seems impossibly far away for them now will become a place they are intimately familiar with as adults. Such is the power, promise, and possibility of this moment in China’s history.

Follow these links to watch Ray’s earlier reports on China’s health challenges involving smoking and obesity.