[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.

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After the quake: worthy of your attention

Owing to the final stages of my thesis and subsequent travel for the Global Voices Summit, blogging will be intermittent from now until mid-May. Still, there’s no excuse not to point you faithful few in the direction of interesting stories. For now, here are some Qinghai-related updates.

  • In response to Wednesday’s quake, Hu Jintao cut short his trip to South America, while Wen Jiabao arrived in Qinghai on Thursday. Premier Wen told survivors, “right now, our most important task is to save lives. More troops will be deployed. We will spare no effort as long as there is the faintest hope.”
  • As many predicted, the schools that have succumbed to the Qinghai earthquake have received substantial scrutiny. According to the latest figures, 11 have collapsed, while 66 students and 10 teachers have died.
  • Reuters have drawn attention to the “quiet contest for influence between the government and Tibetan Buddhist monks who say they speak for the people of the area” (NB: paywalled).
  • Meanwhile, Austin Ramzy has focused on the intense aid relief efforts that Beijing is pursuing in order to lessen the “political tremors” of the disaster. Tania Branigan has also given us a poignant report of the survivors’ plight.
  • For live tweets from the disaster zone, follow @MalcolmMoore (The Telegraph) and @melissakchan on Twitter.