China Discovers World Expo Is No Olympics

After the dazzling 2008 Olympics, China had hoped to draw attention once again with the World Expo, exceeding previous World’s Fair records with visiting nations, exhibitions and attendance. But even before the Expo, Shanghai and many other cities around the globe already carry significant international cachet, displaying futuristic trends, or what Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom call the “World’s Fair Effect.” The two China analysts based at the University of California, Irvine, explain, “The past three decades of intensified globalization, bringing countries and their splendors much closer together, may have robbed China of the mystique associated with the great World’s Fairs of earlier eras.” Some onlookers may be jaded. Yet, a domestic audience is grateful to meet the world on their home turf – as China’s Expo captivates and inspires millions about the potential of international trade and trends. – YaleGlobal

China Discovers World Expo Is No Olympics

World’s Fairs are no longer a big draw for global audiences
Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Painting a future: Shanghai's World Expo has excited Chinese citizens but not so much the world. (Photo: Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom)Enlarge Image

SHANGHAI: From gigantic video displays on Shanghai skyscrapers to electronic monitors inside plush subways showcasing luxury products and the country’s latest engineering marvels, the message is clear: China has arrived. Hosting the World Expo with grand pavilions and futuristic displays, Shanghai can barely contain its brimming pride. But for all the razzle-dazzle, the Chinese government must feel some disappointment that this “second Olympics” is barely registering in world opinion. The past three decades of intensified globalization, bringing countries and their splendors much closer together, may have robbed China of the mystique associated with the great World’s Fairs of earlier eras.

The Expo is halfway through its six-month run and remains low on the global radar, compared with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. This frustrates Chinese authorities and Expo planners who wanted this “Economic Olympics” to be as high-profile as the athletic one. But it reflects the fact that, like past World’s Fairs, the Shanghai Expo is intended mainly to impress a domestic audience – well over 90 percent of visitors come from the host country. Tours of national pavilions provide a vicarious sense of international travel, and displays of new technologies offer a window on the future.

Here in Shanghai, there’s nothing under the radar about the event; it’s impossible to spend even an hour on the city’s streets without being reminded of the Expo. Images of its Gumby-like blue mascot Haibao adorn walls and countless billboards. Hedges in parks are cut to resemble him, and people have their pictures taken next to giant Haibao statues. On the subway, a monitor keeps passengers abreast of daily attendance: Some 400,000 these days, despite blistering heat – and over 40 million since May Day’s opening, well on the way to reaching the oft-pronounced goal of 70 million.

The Expo is a constant topic of conversation: Comments range from expressions of excitement that China has come far enough to host such a glorious event to frustration about six-hour waits at popular pavilions. Locals who have been abroad tend to be blasé or dismissive, seeing the Expo as a disruption of daily life, spurring relocations and a frantic buildup in a city whose urban fabric has already been turned inside out. Visitors streaming in from nearby provinces, by contrast, often seem awed. Despite queues and heat, they relish the chance to marvel at objects from regions they’re unlikely to visit – Denmark’s “Little Mermaid” is here, a Van Gogh painting hangs in the French Pavilion, and the China Pavilion houses representations of architectural forms associated with various Chinese regions.

What foreign visitors think hardly matters. There are so few, we are sometimes stared at as if we were not fellow spectators but part of the show, similar to the experiences of Li Gui, a Chinese traveler to the first official American World’s Fair, the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

That World’s Fair held in Philadelphia has broader relevance, reminding us that Shanghai’s Expo is not the first to signal a country’s rapid rise. The Expo tradition was launched with London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. For the next two decades, only European capitals were deemed advanced enough technologically, influential enough economically, and international-minded enough culturally to host World’s Fairs, the most prominent international events in that era before the television-fueled Olympic surge. The United States was the first non-European country to break into the charmed circle of World’s Fair hosts, and an Asian country would not host until Japan’s Osaka Expo in 1970. Now, with an economy on the verge of displacing Japan’s as the world’s second largest, it is China’s turn. And rather than hosting a World’s Fair like any other, it’s staging the largest in history.

To ensure that the Expo will be a “success” in the sense of having more countries represented by pavilions than any previous World’s Fair, the Chinese government offered to partially or fully finance displays by countries that could not otherwise afford to be present. To ensure that 70 million visitors attend, the government gives free tickets to locals and provides special deals to keep sprawling Expo parking lots filled with buses.

What remains unclear is whether the massive Expo budget, which is larger than that for the 2008 Games, will be enough to accomplish another goal: ensuring that this Expo is in the same league as great World’s Fairs of the past. In today’s soundbite-driven era, that would require it take the host city to a new level in terms of generating buzz. Here, the choice of Shanghai for the venue may have been a mistake, given how frequently the dramatic resurgence of the metropolis as a once-and-now again global city has made headlines ever since Pudong – East Shanghai – became home to some of the world’s tallest buildings in the mid-1990s and the world’s fastest train earlier this decade. 

Shanghai would seem an ideal site for an Expo, since it has long been a port through which the world’s newest technologies and most fashionable trends entered China. This reputation dates to the treaty port era, 1843 to 1943, when the city was home to two main foreign-run enclaves – districts where Western countries and later Japan established spheres of influence, and where Chinese residents could taste French pastries, see neo-classical buildings like those in London, and shop at department stores comparable to those of New York and Tokyo.

Shanghai was, in other words, a precocious producer of what we call the “World’s Fair Effect” – a setting where elements of the global and the futuristic came together in a fashion as they did at London’s Crystal Palace. The World’s Fair Effect, once confined to fairgrounds, can now be felt in many locations, from Disney World’s Epcot Center to food courts at luxury malls to the internet, which offers virtual tours of the globe without users leaving home. With so many international experiences now part of our daily lives, expos are not the only place to encounter the world.

Within Shanghai itself, moreover, the World’s Fair Effect is not limited to treaty-port remnants. The city is dotted with department stores that showcase products of all lands, and Pudong’s rocket-like Pearl of the Orient Tower is the most famous of several local buildings that look as though they could have been left behind by a World’s Fair of decades past.

Perhaps more than any city in the world, Shanghai already resembles a futuristic fairground even when no circus is in town.

For China, particularly patriotic domestic residents whom the Communist Party must impress to retain some patina of legitimacy, this Expo is one more indicator that the country has reclaimed its former status as one of the world’s most powerful nations. From a global point of view, though, the Shanghai Expo can be seen as a test of the viability for any contemporary World’s Fair. And it is hard to see how, in an era of globalization so saturated with World’s Fair Effects, such an international event can ever really matter again. If the determined and deep-pocketed Chinese state can’t do it, who can?


Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the editor of the “China Beat” and a past contributor to publications such as; Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, until recently in Shanghai, is the author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” just published by Oxford University Press. Both authors are based in the History Department of the University of California, Irvine.
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