Hillary Clinton takes break from international issues, visits world's fair in China

A global showcase of architecture, science and technology ends Oct. 31 in China's financial capital.
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 23, 2010

SHANGHAI -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took a few hours off Saturday from her attempts to ensure that war doesn't erupt on the Korean Peninsula and that Iran doesn't get the bomb to bask in one of the singular successes of her 17 months as the nation's top diplomat: the U.S. pavilion at China's first world's fair.

Clinton toured the American and Chinese pavilions at Expo 2010 Shanghai China, exchanged pleasantries with local officials, cooed over children's artwork, hobnobbed with the expo's Gumby-like mascots and was serenaded by scattered calls of "We love you, Hillary!"

"I'm just relieved," Clinton said when asked how she felt about the experience.

She has reason to be. When she took office in January 2009, U.S. participation in the event was questionable. The group pushing for it had little money and even less direction. It looked as if the United States would miss a jamboree of 189 nations and what its organizers claim will be the biggest staged event in human history. China's government is believed to have poured $50 billion into the event and says it is expecting 70 million visitors over six months. Missing out on the fair would have sent a bad signal about how much Washington values its relations with Beijing.

China had given the United States a choice spot at the site, but U.S. law made government funding difficult and the Americans weren't coming up with any money to put up a building. So Clinton took over, deploying her formidable fundraising talents and the help of a few old friends to raise $60 million for the U.S. pavilion. Organizers formed a charity so that donations could be written off. Corporate America began to pony up.

The result, however, resembles more a convention center in a medium-size American city than a national showcase -- a warren of dark rooms with movie screens that pales in comparison to the ambitious pavilions of, among others, Saudi Arabia, which features the world's biggest Imax screen, and Germany, festooned with hundreds of giant red balls. North Korea's pavilion has a fountain, a grotto and videos of "real life" in Pyongyang. Iran's boasts exhibitions of scientific equipment, a stuffed version of its first cloned goat on the first floor and a carpet market, with Iranian fruit juices, upstairs.

In addition, the message Clinton experienced at the American pavilion was so larded with corporate advertising that even some of the visiting U.S. officials appeared to have been taken aback.

One film on the creative power of children featured interviews with representatives from corporate powerhouses Chevron, General Electric, Pepsico and Johnson & Johnson, with Habitat for Humanity and the University of Washington thrown in for good measure. That film was aired in the Citicorp room. In the room sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Clinton was treated to the centerpiece of the U.S. message: a film about a tween named Rain who wants to build a garden on an urban plot. Through cajoling and hard work, she persuades young and old to help her.

"You've got a dream, so plant it in your heart," goes the song. "You can make it bloom so all the world will see." As the movie ended, the screen said in Chinese: "This film was made by Pepsi."

No messages about democracy or freedom of expression or religious beliefs or association marred the program.

Frank Lavin, chairman of regional public affairs for public relations firm Edelman and head of the U.S. pavilion's steering committee, said that was deliberate. "We're trying not to be provocative," he said.

Lavin said Rain's story is "distinctly American" and shows how an open society can work. "It's from the bottom up and multicultural," he added, saying another main goal was not to be "insulting" to Chinese viewers.

Still, message or no, the U.S. pavilion is proving to be a hit -- at least a solid single -- with the Chinese. An estimated 700,000 have visited since the fair opened May 1.

Asked what she thought of the fair as a whole, Clinton was moved, recalling the role world expos have played in U.S. history. China's Communist Party leaders hope the event will showcase their country as a rising but peaceful world power, committed to economic development, science and stability.

"It's so much of a tradition of these expos, all the way back to St. Louis or New York," Clinton said. "It's like a coming-out party for countries and cities. There's a real historical significance."

But when asked about the U.S. pavilion that her efforts had built, Clinton appeared less enthusiastic. "It's fine," she said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company