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At Expo 2010 Shanghai, China thinks big

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

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By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 30, 2010

SHANGHAI -- Take the crowd that attended Woodstock in 1969, multiply it by 175 and dump the result in the middle of the world's most populous city. That is, in effect, what China plans to do at Expo 2010 Shanghai, an elephantine world's fair that opens Friday evening on the banks of the Huangpu River.

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Everything about the Shanghai jamboree is super-size, most prominently the China Pavilion, a red upside-down pyramid with floor space equivalent to 35 football fields. That makes it about 30 times the size of the Canadian-designed U.S. showcase, which is tucked away in a corner of the main Expo site.

"The obvious conscious message is that China has arrived," said Jose Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer recruited by the Obama administration in July to salvage floundering U.S. plans for the Shanghai Expo. "We are basically celebrating China's emergence as a world power."

Villarreal, who was named U.S. commissioner general to the event, joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in raising $61 million from U.S. companies to finance the American pavilion, which -- to China's dismay -- was nearly abandoned at one point for lack of funds. "We were going through one of the worst financial crises in history, and it was hard to get the attention of corporate leaders," Villarreal said.

On Thursday, China signaled its delight that the United States had finally gotten its act together: President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. exhibit, met with Mandarin-speaking American students who are serving as guides and "congratulated us on completing our pavilion," Villarreal said.

For China, money has been no object. Unlike the United States, which has begged for private money to fund expos since 1991, when Congress made government funding difficult, China dipped into the deep pockets of the state. It is spending $4.2 billion on the six-month Expo -- and 10 times that if new roads, rail lines and other infrastructure projects are included in the bill. (The last world's fair on U.S. soil, held in New Orleans in 1984, went bankrupt.)

One thing that has been scaled back in Shanghai, though, is Friday's opening ceremony. It still features an elaborate fireworks display, but an even grander spectacle was pared down to make sure China's second city didn't eclipse Beijing's opening of the 2008 Olympics.

A dozen boxes of silk

When London hosted the first world's fair in 1851, showcasing Britain as the dominant industrial and imperial power, China's sole contribution was 12 boxes of silk sent by a Shanghai merchant. Karl Marx, who was in London at the time working on theories that would inspire Mao Zedong and which nominally still guide China's ruling Communist Party, deplored the whole affair, known as the Great Exhibition, as an exercise in capitalist excess.

About the only nod in Marx's direction in Shanghai is a second opening ceremony Saturday -- International Workers' Day -- to open the Expo's vast riverside sites to the general public.

U.S. reliance on corporate sponsors has presented "unique difficulties," Villarreal said, noting that all other major countries have full-time government-funded teams that turn up at each world's fair. "We invent the wheel every time," he said.

While throngs of Chinese with advance tickets waited for hours earlier this week to get a sneak preview of China's already operating national exhibit, American contractors were still connecting wires and unpacking boxes inside a hall dominated by the corporate logos of sponsors.

'Rising to the Challenge'

The U.S. pavilion -- motto: "Rising to the Challenge" -- features a movie house, a big room filled with stands promoting the companies that are footing the bill and a fast-food joint run by Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. The United States has also signed some big-name acts, including musician Herbie Hancock, who will perform next month.

Early reviews of U.S. efforts from ordinary Chinese have been mostly lukewarm. "There are too many corporate logos," said Sam Feng, a 30-year-old Shanghai resident. "I thought the USA would have some brilliant and exciting stuff. . . . Except for buying some souvenirs, I can't think of anything special about it."

China's pavilion has also stirred some grumbling. There have been complaints that its design was cribbed from a Japanese exhibit in Spain in 1992. The Chinese designer denies this.

Zhou Hanmin, deputy director of the Expo's organizing committee, said China is not trying to show off by building a gigantic national pavilion. It needs the space to house exhibits from 31 provinces and cities, which each have bigger populations than many countries. Moreover, big as it is, the China Pavilion will only be able to accommodate about 8 percent of the expected 70 million visitors, he said.


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