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Shanghai World Expo: Serious Business with a Side of Campy Fun

Netherlands pavilion
World’s fairs are fun. There, I’ve said it. Campy fun, perhaps, but fun all the same. Traditional music and native dress. Buildings that attempt to boil down the essence of a country’s identity into a striking, but affordable structure. Parades and international cuisine, corporate sponsors showing off their visions of the future, and all at family prices. What’s not to love?

The Swiss pavilion here at the Expo 2010 Shanghai is a map of Switzerland with a ski lift carrying visitors across the Alps. Folk singers and dancers are packing in the crowds at the Romanian pavilion. The Netherlands pavilion has a strand of Vincent van Gogh’s hair (how exactly do you get that?) helpfully mounted under a magnifying glass and a tiara belonging to a royal princess. Soccer players and tango dancers practice their respective arts on the stadium-size television screen on the Argentine pavilion’s facade.

But underneath the frivolity of some of the spectacle is serious business: Many pavilions underscore the need for reducing the burning of carbon-based fuels, and many of the corporate structures reflect the importance of China as a rising global economic power. This is also the first fair in a developing country with a per capita GDP in the lower half of the world’s nations ($3,678 for 2009 according to the International Monetary Fund), and that’s one of the most interesting parts of the story.

Plenty of China watchers have concluded this world’s fair is as much a domestic play as a bid for the world’s attention. The unelected government of China is essentially saying to Shanghai and the rest of the country, “See? We deliver.” Especially in this go-go city, the injection of more than $50 billion in capital spending to get Shanghai ready for the fair can be seen as a reminder of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, and its ability to bring home the bacon. It is also a potent signal to the visitors pouring into Shanghai from all over China that in this global marketplace. China can snap its fingers, and just about every country in the world shows up — and shows off.

Just a few months ago, U.S. participation in this international party was looking shaky. Barred by law from using government funds to build or operate an installation at the expo, American organizers were millions short of bare minimum fundraising requirements. Everything about the American effort was late, behind other nations, and risked a snub to the Shanghai fair. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to China, was filled in on the woeful state of the American effort and put her own clout behind fundraising efforts.

The USA Pavilion has some of the longest lines of the Expo. There are no groups in native attire singing American traditional music. Plenty of American food is already available at the fair — there are multiple Pizza Huts, KFCs, and Starbucks on the grounds but none served inside. The American representative to this world exposition is essentially a movie theater. While other countries showcase technological developments and national culture in very tangible ways, the United States instead uses a three-part, high-tech video presentation to tell America’s story to Chinese visitors.

The people leaving the American “4-D” show were pleased by what they saw. They said it showed them another side of America and was worth braving the very long lines to experience. When you leave the 25-minute show, a visitor finds himself in a lobby area with ads and installations from the corporations that paid for the pavilion, and a video presentation on both every day and extremely accomplished Chinese Americans. A nice touch: the inclusion of Steve Chen, one of the creators of YouTube, born in Taiwan. The dangerous melange of music videos, home movies, and squirrels on water skis is unavailable in China, blocked by government censors.

Even for a no-holds-barred city lover, traveling through the world’s most populous city is a revelation. There may be larger conurbations. There may be larger metropolitan areas. We can quibble about the ranking and how it’s obtained, but inside the corporate limits of Shanghai, reside the largest number of residents of any city in the world, about 14 million people living packed together at about 7,200 to the square kilometer.

I just spent the day running around the city and walking through the World Expo, and came away dazzled and troubled. What has happened here has rarely happened in the history of the world in such a short time. Skyscrapers are rising in every direction. Massive cargo ships head up and down the legendary Huangpu River. New highways and tunnels head in every direction across the vast metro area, and the world’s longest subway system gets longer by the week.

Tens of thousands of people were moved from the Expo site by government fiat, a reminder that authoritarian governments can do plenty very quickly simply by deciding to do it…and large numbers of people governed without their active consent can have their lives disrupted in the process. But while one hand takes away, another one gives: Every registered resident of Shanghai got free admission to the fair, and coupons good for eating and entertainment.

I’ll have more from China for the NewsHour broadcast…on the World Expo, Shanghai and the Chinese economy, and global health unit reports on smoking and obesity later in May, along with plenty of web-only content for the Rundown. Stay tuned.

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