[Updated] Parting thoughts on the Shanghai Expo

Note: this post has been amended. The original version included a paragraph towards the end in which I stated, “I was left wondering why so much was doled out on constructing a pavilion that legally cannot be eclipsed by any other, which could have otherwise gone to more pressing demands of healthcare or education.” While I still stand by that assertion, a commenter pointed out the statement was misplaced in the context of the post. I agreed with him, and it’s been removed.

Despite its name, this blog has produced next to no coverage of the event that, it could be argued, defined Shanghai this year: the 2010 World Expo. Why? For one, I was out of the city during the height of the event and, by the time I had returned, it was obvious that two good gentlemen had it brilliantly covered: Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter and DeluxZilla’s Zachary Franklin provided news from inside the pavilions, details of the length of the queues and what visiting European dignitaries had to say, and everything else in between, from behind-the-scenes nepotism at the construction of the US Pavilion, to where to take a good nap in the scorching summer heat. So, I decided my two cents would take the form of these parting thoughts, and here they are.

Hot off the heels of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which aimed to bring China to the global stage, the extravagant Expo sought to bring the global stage to China. Over the past six months, official figures estimated that over 70 million visitors flocked to the 5.28 square kilometre area housing national, corporate and theme-inspired pavilions, split into two and strewn across the banks of the Huangpu River. That’s the entire population of the UK plus an extra 10 million, in an area more or less the size of New York’s Central Park. Last Sunday alone, 1.3 million people crammed themselves in to the national pavilion side, slamming Osaka’s daily record of 836,000 visitors in 1970.

And not for nothing, either. An estimated $55 billion – double the amount dished out on the Olympics – has been spent on the Expo and immense sprucing up of Shanghai: we have seen the lightning-speed expansion of the city’s subway system (complete with guards and x-ray machines to maintain ‘public security’), the repaving of just about every potholed street, and a brand-spanking new walkway on the Bund. A media campaign pushing for more ‘civilised’ behaviour and government-led programmes clamping down on wearing pyjamas outside, smoking and spitting in public, all day-to-day fare in the city, have also been set up. Perhaps more bitterly, Shanghai has also seen the demolition of several of its quaint, historical neighbourhoods.

It was during this time (September 2009) that I landed in town: the city’s clean up was my introduction to the Expo. As the infamous food street Wujiang Lu faced deconstruction to show a more sanitised Shanghai complete with glitzy malls instead, I became cynical about the price being paid for this World’s Fair. Given that the pavilions (except China’s) were also due to be torn down once the event finished, I wondered what the point of the whole thing was, without a legacy to preserve the efforts that have gone into creating it.

That lingering air of skepticism stayed with me on my few trips to the Expo. As I walked through the Italian pavilion one evening, surrounded by a display of pasta, a multitude of wine bottles, a giant high-heel plastered with other footwear, and all the while surrounded by model Renaissance architecture, I wondered where I was. This isn’t the Italy I come from or know, I thought to myself. Wandering through the Brazil pavilion, I waltzed under a football net. Hmmm. Brazil = football. I then walked beneath passing shots of Rio’s lush skyline. How big is Brazil? How much of the country looks like this? Whether or not North Korea is a “paradise for the people”, as its pavilion suggests, is also open to debate.

The entire event felt like one enormous cliche of regurgitated stereotypes. Adding to the surreal nature of it all was, for instance, the exorbitant prices charged by some pavilions’ restaurants (a set menu in the Italian pavilion’s eatery went well into the 100s of yuan range). Could the average Chinese visitor afford the food they have seen displayed on the walls of the room they have spent the last fifteen minutes circling? Probably not. They get teased but don’t get to taste.

Other foreign bloggers brushed the event aside. ChinaGeeks‘ C. Custer said

The idea of a “World’s Fair” was understandably appealing in the 1800s, when it served as an important exchange point for technology, and its appeal continued in the twentieth century because of the peerless opportunity it provided to get a glimpse of lots of other cultures all in one place. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, we have the internet for that. Many countries seem to be treating the Expo as a soft-power branding opportunity, and some countries are just phoning it in. But what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?

Although I’m unsure of what he means by “any regular person”, Custer’s final sentence summed up my sentiments as my uber-enthusiastic flatmate dragged me, the poster child for a moaning Briton, around Zones B and C one balmy September evening. I strolled past the Russia pavilion at around 7pm: the estimated waiting time was still around 3 hours long. Uninspired by the prospect of waiting 3+ hours just to gaze at what I could only expect would be a cut-out of St Basil’s cathedral, I moved on.

But as the evening went on, my cynicism wore off. I realised, yes, the Expo is pure, unadulterated nation-branding. And yes, that entails re-hashing stereotypes, which, as a privileged and reasonably well-travelled foreigner, I am able to spot. But for the millions of Chinese who have travelled far and wide and spent hours trudging across the Expo site, I doubt the issue of stereotypes is of great concern. In the words of Minter,

Could it be, just possibly, that all of those people are curious to know something about a country capable of spending (reportedly) well over $100 million on a pavilion, and lacking the opportunity to travel there themselves (unlike most Expo critics in the foreign media), are taking the only route available to them?

An Expo sympathiser, Minter has lamented the patchy coverage of the event given by China’s community of foreign correspondents. What motivated the Chinese, in their millions, to keep returning to the site, was a missed opportunity for a story, he argues. Earlier this week, he posted an interview with Malcolm Moore, the Daily Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent and undeterred Expo critic. Minter asked him whether Telegraph readers and editors back in the UK were interested in the event, to which Moore responded:

There was no interest. We had a senior editor come over, but he was pretty bored by it all. It was a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event. Let’s face it, everyone loves sport, so everyone loves the Olympics. But what excitement was there at the Expo over the six months it ran? I must have asked fifty people who paid for tickets and queued up what their impression of it was, and around 95 per cent of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was “alright”.

While demand in the West for all things Expo may have been low, it seems the Shanghainese can’t get enough of it. Xinhua reported that surveys conducted by Shanghai-based Touchmedia through touch-screens installed in the backs of taxi headrests, around 60 percent of passengers among the 130,000 surveyed expect another Expo in the Middle Kingdom.

For all its quirky stereotypes, insane crowds (complete with sly folk jumping queues), overpriced refreshments and hasty demolition of some of Shanghai’s more beautiful spots, it’s undeniable that the Expo has been a defining feature in the city’s development and China’s growth more widely. It has seen the Middle Kingdom reach out to the rest of the world far more, and bring those nations, albeit in limited terms, to its own people. It set out to be the victory lap for 2008′s coming out party, and some are optimistic that it achieved this goal. Speaking to Adam Minter, Zachary Franklin said,

You’re not going to find a single pavilion at this Expo walk away saying they failed. Every pavilion had some measure of success. Some pavilions wanted visitors going home knowing where the country was located on the map, other pavilions created extensive cultural and business programs for six months.

So it is goodbye to the Expo, a farewell I am saying from the comfort of my flat, rather than among the millions of visitors who beat me to the punch in securing tickets for the final day. Thank Christ the sun’s out.

Gathering thoughts on Google

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP

It is safe to say most of us are all Googled out by now. Throughout 23rd March, news of the Internet giant’s dramatic exit from China after it suffered a Chinese-originated cyber attack flowed unwaveringly through feeds, blogs, social media platforms and mainstream news outlets. A total eclipse of Twitter seems to have passed slightly, giving a minute to gather some thoughts on the matter.

The big question, of course, is what are the implications of Google’s move? Business-wise, Google may have inflicted substantial self-harm by pulling out of China. An AP report suggests the company’s market value has been severely dented by the spat, with one analyst predicting a reduction of $10 billion to $15 billion, or $30 to $50 per share. Chinese powerhouses are also set to succeed thanks to Google’s exit.

But the other side of the coin is that these losses come with the territory of taking a principled stand against the demands of an authoritarian government.

For the liberals among us who advocate freedom of expression online, we have seen wider-reaching debates on the issue of censorship. The cyber attack that was the straw that broke Google’s back shed light on the intricacies of the Great Firewall and how far it is isolating China. The response from the US, in the form of Hillary Clinton’s staunch speech, has also helped spurred on a debate on both government and Internet companies’ accountability.

Although in its formative stages, this discussion has by no means been limited to Western commentators. Over the weekend, an open-source letter was published by a group of Chinese activists demanding clarity of the Google/China fiasco. Rebecca MacKinnon translated,

if Google.cn were to no longer exist, or if China were to further block other Google services, has the Chinese government considered how their blocking of foreign websites and censorship of domestic websites violates Chinese citizens’ right to scientific, educational, environmental, clean energy and other information? How will this loss be lessened or compensated for?

Netizens who may well have been apolitical prior to the events were jolted by Google’s tough stance. However, this must be kept in perspective. As MacKinnon says, the events reflect

a recognition that China’s status quo – at least when it comes to censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet – is unlikely to improve any time soon, and may in fact continue to get worse.

The issue of censorship has been, and was always going to be, a non-negotiable for Beijing. The sophisticated techniques used to contain public opinion and the spread of information were always going continue regardless of whatever Google chose to do. An interesting question, as pointed out by C.Custer, is why have people stopped caring about the fact that Google was hacked? Speaking to James Fallows of The Atlantic, Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond clarified the events:

This attack, which was from China, was different. It was almost singularly focused on getting into Gmail accounts specifically of human rights activists, inside China or outside. They tried to do that through Google systems that thwarted them. On top of that, there were separate attacks, many of them, on individual Gmail users who were political activists inside and outside China. There were political aspects to this hacking attacks that were quite unusual.

That was distasteful to us. It seemed to us that this was all part of an overall system bent on suppressing expression, whether it was by controlling internet search results or trying to surveil activists. It is all part of the same repressive program, from our point of view. We felt that we were being part of that.

Playing the victim card (and rightly so) got Google little sympathy from China. The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore spoke to a handful of Shanghai’s upwardly mobile middle class about the fiasco. One sales manager in their mid-twenties said,

Google should have complied and adapted, rather than swimming against the tide. It is really a shame that it has now decided to go, but I do not think it will have a long-lasting effect on us.

A government official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office also showed little mercy:

Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks (…) This is totally wrong. We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.

But despite China’s desires, the issue was always going to be politicised. Google was forced to take a stand and, in so doing, dealt itself tough cards. Indeed, in this light China could certainly come out as the bad guy. As Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell clarifies, the results could include:

exposing the country’s claims of increased openness as hollow, scaring away potential investors, and taking away a valuable source of innovation and healthy competition.

What is also crucial is that, in terms of diplomatic relations, the timing of the saga was particularly tense. With US arms sales to Taiwan, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and Obama, and not to mention the US continually pressing China to revaluate the Renminbi, the Google-China fiasco has done nothing to heal the wounds between East and West.

Indeed, Google’s actions may well have provided fuel for a more aggressive US policy towards China. Google co-founder Sergey Brin certainly wasted no time in calling on the US to put more pressure on Beijing. He said,

Human rights issues deserve equal time to the trade issues that are high priority now … I hope this gets taken seriously.

Since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier.

Plus, while the White House expressed disappointment that a deal was not reached between the two giants, it would have been foolish to have ever expected an agreement. Google had sealed its fate with its first announcement in January that it was going to stop censoring search results on google.cn: China was never going to back down.

In spite of this, Brin remains hopeful. He told the New York Times, “perhaps we can return to serving mainland China in the future.” And while Google told The Guardian it wants to continue R&D work in China, what happens next remains shrouded in confusion. Drummond told The Atlantic,

We don’t know what to expect. We have done what we have done. We are fully complying with Chinese law. We’re not operating our search engine within the Firewall any more.  We will continue to talk with them about how to operate our other services.

Whether this epic fiasco ends up damaging China more than Google remains to be seen. In the midst of the tense bickering, it can be hard to see what Google has concretely achieved, not least since China’s censorship shows no signs of easing. However, in taking positive lessons from the fiercer debates on free speech online, perhaps some of the political and diplomatic fallout can be eased.