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U.S. Running Out of Time to Join Shanghai Expo
State Dept. Pushing Participation After Chinese Officials Expressed Dismay to Clinton

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Web site for the Shanghai 2010 Expo displays picture after picture of gleaming national pavilions that are under construction in anticipation of the grand opening a year from now. Virtually every country in the world is participating in a six-month event that is expected to attract 70 million visitors at a site twice the size of Monaco, with the Chinese government spending $7.3 billion to demonstrate its new global standing.

But the Web page for the United States shows only an American flag and a notation, last updated in 2006: "U.S. Government has verbally expressed the official commitment of participation. The organizer is waiting for its written confirmation."

Besides the United States, which missed a critical deadline last month to confirm its participation, the only other countries with diplomatic ties to China that remain uncommitted are Colombia and Andorra. The result is the U.S. pavilion is in danger of not being built and the Obama administration has yet another diplomatic headache when it is trying to build ties with China and use "soft power" to extend American influence.

"If the U.S. cannot make it this time, it will be very regrettable," said Xu Wei, spokesman for the Shanghai expo, the first world's fair China will host. "The U.S. attended the world expo many times before." He said the United States is running out of time to finish its pavilion by year's end, so expo organizers are preparing contingency plans.

World's fairs often result in architectural icons -- such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Space Needle in Seattle -- and most other governments foot the bill for their national pavilions. But the United States since 1991 has relied on corporate funding and private donors, which meant it was a no-show or partial participant at most recent world's fairs; the U.S. pavilion at the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan, for instance, was largely underwritten by Toyota.

Though the problems with the $61 million pavilion project began in the Bush administration, senior Chinese officials have made clear their displeasure to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, prompting the State Department to begin an intensive effort to rescue U.S. participation. Clinton has signed letters urging strong support for American participation to key organizations, such as the Committee of 100, a prominent group of Chinese Americans, and the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. The proposed U.S. pavilion is a futuristic building featuring environmentally friendly technology, such as water-misting systems instead of air conditioning, a roof garden and wild bird habitat.

"I believe it is crucial for the United States to be present along with the other 180 nations participating in this major global event," Clinton wrote. "The U.S. presence at the Expo will showcase American business, culture and values in China's most dynamic city and foster an even stronger friendship between the American and Chinese peoples."

The Chinese made it clear they planned the Shanghai expo to be the largest and most extravagant in history. To lure U.S. participation, the Chinese government set aside a 60,000-square-foot site for the American pavilion, allowing it to anchor one end of the expo's central promenade; the $200 million Chinese pavilion would anchor the other end. And to keep the U.S. project going despite one missed deadline after another, the Chinese construction company that would build the pavilion has advanced money to the architect in order to complete design and engineering work, sources involved in the project said.

While other countries rushed to announce their plans for participation, the U.S. effort lagged. The Bush administration insisted on a cumbersome process under which the State Department first selected the group designated to design, build and manage the project; that group was then asked to raise the funds needed to construct it. The Bush administration insisted that no government financing was available, though the 1991 law it often cited as barring public funds appears to permit government funding if the administration requests it from Congress.

The team selected to build the U.S. pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010 Inc., is a nonprofit partnership formed by Nick Winslow and Ellen Eliasoph, two former Warner Brothers executives. It was selected last March, but the partners pulled the plug on the project late last year, saying they could not raise the money. They decided to revive it in January, after the Chinese construction company provided the funds for engineering work and a change in presidential administrations suggested there might be renewed interest in the project.

Clinton focused on the problem when she received an earful from Chinese officials during her first trip overseas in February and became aware of the diplomatic consequences, U.S. officials said.

Eliasoph, a lawyer at Covington & Burling, said "the Chinese government has been pretty flexible with us" about meeting deadlines. She said that because of Clinton's involvement, fundraising has begun to kick in, with one major company soon to announce its support and $35 million to $40 million in potential contributions "under active negotiation." She said they were not seeking money from the U.S. government and were "not in the business of taking money from the Chinese government."

Winslow, the other partner, said that with the architectural and engineering plans completed, the Chinese construction company is prepared to erect the building whether or not it becomes the American pavilion; without U.S funds, it could be used for something else.

One option under consideration, according to reports from China, is to let Kentucky Fried Chicken use the building for fast-food sales.

Researcher Zhang Zie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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