[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.

Advertisements

Catching up

It’s been a minute, or a month. This post is my attempt to wade through the news I’ve missed (translation: shamefully avoided due to running off to the UK for a week). So, what’s been happening, and where are the stories? The following are a small selection.

  • A lot of talk today has been hovering around ‘Man of the Year’ Bo Xilai, the Chongqing Party chief and potential contender for the Politburo’s Standing Committee during the 2012 leadership transition. Discussions of the future generation of China’s leaders have been taking place behind the scenes at the current annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC). As the Washington Post reported, the charismatic Bo has become the poster boy for a group of emerging Chinese leaders known as ‘princelings’, or descendants of high-ranking party officials. They also claim China’s future lies with its nascent middle class, which would bring about some…interesting results if Bo does rise to power.
  • In addition to his online talks with China’s netizens (which, for blogger Han Song, left many questions unanswered) , Premier Wen preached for two hours in the Great Hall of the People during the NPC’s session. Major themes were tackling corruption and closing the country’s pressing poverty gap. Wen pledged increased social and rural spending, yet his cautious uncertainty over the global economic landscape means this year’s overall spending increase sits at 11.4% (less than half of last year’s 24% rise). Tania Branigan has the details covered here.
  • Earlier this month, thirteen Chinese newspapers surprisingly joined forces in an appeal for social reforms. They attacked the hukou (household registration system), which limits the access of rural migrant workers to basic services in China’s metropolises. The issue was also high on the agenda of the NPC session, with Wen promising change.
  • Also resulting from the session were suggestions for new regulations on China’s Internet cafes. Don Weinland from Global Voices reported that the “People’s Representative Gao Wanneng called for a ‘zero-hour cutoff’ for internet cafes due to ‘long-term Internet addiction’ in the Chinese youth.” Drastic? Yes, according to the netizens featured in Weinland’s piece.
  • The New York Times published a running debate on China’s exodus of graduates facing unemployment. In the past decade, the portion of graduates from Chinese universities has increased sixfold, but their expectations are outweighing actual careers. And while we’re on the topic of education, the China Law and Policy blog makes no effort to disguise the PRC’s academic misconduct, and the legal system that harbours it.
  • Finally, since International Women’s Day has been upon us, Shanghaiist featured a video report from Al-Jazeera about Wu Qin, a teacher at Beijing’s Rural Women’s Training School who aims to empower such women in China’s male-dominated society. God love her.

And so, for those of you not in GMT + 8 (or similar time zone), Happy International Women’s Day!

Saturday briefing

Would-be contestant at Mr Gay China, courtesy of The Guardian. (C) Dan Chung

This hasn’t been China’s quietest of weeks, so here’s a little cyber digest to round up the deets. Where to begin?

First, of course, has been the will-they-won’t-they state of Google in China. Since news broke over their potential withdrawal from China, developments and debate have gone full steam ahead:

  • Wreaths were laid by a saddened few in both Beijing and Guangzhou, but what about those indoors? Roland Soong over at ESWN has translated some Chinese netizen reactions to Google’s stance, and Tania Branigan has covered Internet experts’ opinion in this video.
  • The US has said it will make a formal protest to China over the cyber attacks Google apparently suffered. Expect demands for an explanation in the coming days.
  • In response to the fiasco, China’s Foreign Ministry said foreign internet firms were welcome to do business in the PRC “according to the law.” The Ministry’s spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, also claimed the Internet in China was “open.” Right. Which is precisely why this particular blog was blocked this week, though WordPress is still good to go. But, as the LA Times reported, the Great Firewall has certainly become a lot less sturdy.

Secondly, ol’ reliable ChinaGeeks pointed us to some notable stories that were hidden by Google’s shadow. For example:

sending just one unlawful text message will result in suspension of the texting service. To get it back, the person would have to submit a written promise to the public security authority not to send unlawful messages again.

This week also saw the potential start of a greater acceptance of China’s gay community:

  • As Shanghaiist told us, Chengdu hosted one of China’s first recorded gay marriage ceremonies last week.
  • On Sunday, Tania Branigan reported that the first Mr Gay China pageant was on its way. This was considered a huge feat for a section of society whose sexual orientation was classified as a ‘mental illness’ until 2001.
  • However, news has recently broken of the pageant being shut down by Beijing police just hours before it was due to begin. Branigan says that officers apparently told the venue’s owners that the pageant was “a sensitive issue”.

Finally, the more sombre news also reached us that human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng is ‘missing’, having been seized and detained by authorities last year. He has long been an outspoken critic of the CCP, having had his law license revoked in 2005.

That Gao has been secretly executed certainly seems possible — much more possible than that he escaped or somehow wandered off, as the police have suggested. That no one will tell Gao’s family of his real fate is truly the lowest form of cowardice.

  • For more information on Gao’s activities prior to his detention, such as his representing underground Christian churches and Falun Gong practitioners, check out this NYT report.

Chinese media in 2010

2010 is already off to a chapping start, but things aren’t so icy on the Chinese media front. Tania Branigan has given us this succinct report of how citizen activism, political discussion, tighter censorship and propaganda struggles could well intensify this year. Things have already kicked off, with cyber activism going full steam ahead: recently, netizens have been tweeting away and registering the Internet domain name CN4IRAN.org in support of December’s protests in Tehran.

The kind folk over at China Media Project have translated and served up a guide to this year’s direction of external news and propaganda. According to the country’s State Council Information Office (SCIO), China “must effectively engage the international struggle for public opinion” and “raise our nation’s cultural soft power.”

And, true to form, no time has been wasted in following through. In the past two days, IMDB has been blocked (although access to CN4IRAN.org remains free-flowing), and Tibetan filmmaker Dhongdup Wangchen has been jailed for six years for his documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, which highlighted Tibetan anger with Chinese policies before the 2008 Olympics. In the past week, the New York Times also reported that Liu Xiaobo appealed the 11 year sentence handed to him on Christmas Day, which has 45 days to be considered.

This also may well be a big year for Ai Weiwei (whose 2009 wasn’t exactly quiet, either). Besides setting up the Earthquake Student Names Citizen’s Investigation, which found around 5000 names of children who died during the Sichuan earthquake, the artist has been busy tweeting and speaking out against the CCP’s various moves. Most recently, he has been heralded as the ‘new model for the intellectuals’.

For now, let’s keep a sharp eye on 2010 and see if Ai Weiwei’s following statement (kindly translated by C.Custer over at ChinaGeeks) will be realised through more action, both online and off:

Today, the government is a part of us, and we are a part of the government; society is a part of us, and we are a part of society. Everyone must assume [this responsibility], whether it’s in their consciousness, part of their mentality, or it’s something they do; everyone is expressing how they want society to be.