City life is the focus of China’s next giant international event. Paul French, China editor, will be there

It’s Mega-Event time again in China. In May, less than two years since the Beijing Olympics, there’ll be fireworks for the opening of another national triumph of organisation – the 2010 Shanghai Expo. It runs until the end of October. “Better City, Better Life” is the official theme, plastered on thousands of billboards around the city amid a construction frenzy in preparation.

Expos, or World Fairs, have a bit of a bad reputation elsewhere. New York’s 1964 World Fair nearly bankrupted the city while the 2000 Expo left Hanover in debt to the tune of $1bn.

World Fairs are also not quite as “world” as they used to be – the last one, in 2008, in Zaragoza saw 95% of the 5.7 million visitors come from within Spain (and most of were locals from Zaragoza itself). Shanghai plans to break all records – it’s longer than any other Expo at 184 days while 70 million visitors are predicted, though probably 98% will be Chinese. Expectations of foreign visitors are being constantly downplayed as Shanghai realises the rest of the world either doesn’t know about the Expo or doesn’t care. Of course a city of 19 million, in a region (the Yangtze delta) of over 80 million and a country of 1.3 billion can deliver a mere 70 million visitors no problem.

Showing the world who’s best

Expos may be out of fashion globally but in Shanghai they’re the hottest thing since instant noodles.

Let’s be honest about a few things. First, the Communist party is using the event to gain face and show the people it can deliver another global event. Second, foreign firms are quite clear it’s all about reaching a domestic Chinese audience. And third, there are no problems – the press has been told not to mention the cost, not to suggest that the world hasn’t heard about it and even, by strict order, not to make fun of the silly blue mascot Haibao that is everywhere in Shanghai.

Better City, Better Life is of course a slogan that can be all things to all men. In Shanghai when a historic building is pulled down to widen a road, officials say “Better City, Better Life”. When people are relocated to the suburbs with little compensation it’s all part of building a “Better City, Better Life”.

The Expo themes are officially all about the environment and urban living, sustainability and green-tech. Some critics have voiced concerns that a “green” Expo being held on a brownfield site that wasn’t really cleaned up is a bit daft. And an event where you effectively build a decent sized town – 3.28 square kilometres – and then pull it down six months later is not the best definition of sustainability.

National showcasing

Still, if you’re thinking of coming, it will be a chance to see more green-tech and more ideas about the environment, sustainability and alternative energy in one place than anywhere else. An Expo is really just a series of national pavilions showcasing various countries’ innovations and ideas. There are also some corporate pavilions from the likes of Cisco and, thrillingly, the Chinese State Grid Corporation.

Pretty much everyone is going for an environmental or urban planning theme and companies will also be displaying their green innovations. The centre-piece Chinese pavilion features a host of green-tech, from low emission glass and windows that convert heat into lighting. The Israelis are building a solar tower and the Swedish pavilion is being constructed from a new type of low energy consumption steel.

Others have gone the other way of course: Mexico will feature a lot of kites, the UAE is “building” a 20 metre high sand dune and the UK, rather predictably, will project an oversized picture of David Beckham for some reason.

What may be more interesting is what ordinary Chinese visitors take away from the Expo. Some Shanghai officials are rather concerned that instead of simply seeing some pretty Mexican kites or a large footballer’s head projected through some colourful PV cells they may find themselves being engaged in a dialogue about the environment or urban planning.

A number of countries are drawing links between community involvement and environmental protection, listening to citizens’ own ideas about urban development. This does not happen in top-down China where “Better City, Better Life” is delivered from on high with no consultation. What happens if in 2010 the residents of Shanghai demand a say in their city’s development and their environment? Some officials are having sleepless nights over that prospect.

So, see you in May. I’ll be the guy on top of the UAE sand dune with a Mexican kite staring up at a giant photo of Becks, looking bewildered.

Based in China for more than 20 years, Paul French is a partner in the research publisher Access Asia.

Related Reads

comments powered by Disqus