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Letter from China

Shanghai prepares world's fair while wondering about costs

A global showcase of architecture, science and technology ends Oct. 31 in China's financial capital.

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 19, 2010

SHANGHAI --

As China's largest city prepares to open the most expensive world's fair in history, the 2008 Beijing Olympics provides both a model and a cautionary tale.

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As with the extravagant Olympics, Chinese officials see the World Expo, which begins next month and runs through October, as another chance to showcase China's rising clout and prosperity to a global audience. Shanghai has been constructing lavishly for the event, including new subway lines and an additional airport terminal.

But more than a year and a half after the Beijing Games awed the world, some of the most iconic venues have fallen into disuse.

The "Bird's Nest" stadium, site of the lavish opening ceremonies, hosted just three concerts and two B-list sporting events last year, and nothing in recent months. The "Water Cube," an engineering marvel where American swimmer Michael Phelps made Olympic history, has not been used for a competition since, and has been closed for renovations since October as officials try to transform it into an entertainment complex.

So far, the huge maintenance costs of those venues is being sustained by Chinese tourists, who pay for tickets to visit them and relive a bit of China's glory. But officials said interest is beginning to wane.

Perhaps mindful of that history, authorities in Shanghai decided that almost all the World Expo pavilions will be dismantled immediately after the fair. The site, an old industrial area that once housed a steel plant and scrap yard, will be used for exhibitions and conferences, a business sector this city is still trying to develop.

Also, officials and Shanghai residents say, the costly infrastructure improvements will continue to benefit locals long after the fair has closed down.

There have been contradictory official statements about the cost of the expo. Officially, the budget is 28.6 billion yuan, or just over $4 billion. But the China Economic Daily reported that the real cost could reach more than 400 billion yuan -- or more than $58 billion -- once all the costs for construction, the rail lines and the airport terminal are factored in. In addition, some 17,000 people were relocated, adding to the costs.

"Shanghai will be more beautiful, cleaner and have better infrastructure," said Hong Hao, the director general of the expo. "All the citizens will benefit from this."

He added, "We never stopped learning from the Beijing Olympics."

Most Shanghainese seem to like the idea of their city being the center of attention. One of the few vocal critics was Han Han, a popular writer, blogger and rally car driver. Invited to an expo forum for celebrities in November, Han Han began by saying the rapid urbanization of Shanghai would "make life worse," and the live video feed of his remarks abruptly stopped. His speech ended up being passed around on Web sites.


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