Shanghai on show: Shanghai World Expo 2010

By: Matteo Damiani - Posted on: October 3, 2010 | Society
A view of the main 2010 World Expo site under construction in Shanghai, China on 13 July 2009.
A view of the main 2010 World Expo site under construction in Shanghai, China on 13 July 2009. Photo: EPA/QILAI SHEN

Despite the stunning architecture, Critics argue the Shanghai World Expo 2010 has failed to deliver a better city or a better life.

The Shanghai World Expo 2010 has been talked up as the best World Expo ever by the one-party state, who regard the $50 billion event as a statement of status in world affairs.

Yet, since its meticulously executed opening ceremony in April, the six-month international trade showcase of technology and ideas has been shrouded by a cloud of criticism – largely ignored by corporate media owners – over management and government restrictions of press freedom, which echo the information clampdown before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

In the lead up to the expo, the government instructed Chinese media not to engage in independent reporting and ordered website editors to block mention of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan solidarity campaigns organised in the aftermath of the April 25 earthquake that left 100,000 Tibetans homeless.

The Ministry of Truth also told the media to follow official reports on the plagiarism scandal that marred the opening ceremony. The official anthem, Right Here Waiting for You 2010, sung by many famous Chinese stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, Li Bingbing and Liu Xiang was allegedly plagiarised from the 1997 Japanese Sonomama no Kimi de Ite, While those in China remain muted on the subject, internet sites across the globe have been buzzing over the embarrassing scandal.

While it is readily noted by observers that World Expos have lost some of their luster in recent years, the Shanghai exposition is a key event for China’s country branding and reputation building. Possibly even a platform from which to demonstrate its soft power.

But visitor numbers are significantly below expectations. The Chinese government has invested tens of billions preparing its largest city for the predicted 70 million visitors, mainly from China. But high entrance prices to pavilions, long queues and the economic crisis have had an impact on numbers. As a consequence, China risks missing out on the prestigious ranking within the top ten world expositions. The list is currently topped by the 1970 Osaka expo in Japan, which attracted 64 million visitors. For China to achieve its visitor target, it needs 380,000 people to visit each day. So far, however, the highest number of visitors in any one day has been about 215,000 according to the organiser’s official website.

In the opening week, visitors also complained of the absence of affordable food and wet, slippery pavements after rainfalls left 500 people needing medical attention. Organisers of the event, which spans an area the size of 1,000 football fields, said they responded to criticism by providing cheaper food and installing more rubbish bins, umbrellas for shade and benches. But they had difficulty censoring the thousands of forums openly criticising the event.

The official theme of the exposition, Better City, Better Life, has given rise to various interpretations – as is expected with an expo that includes 189 nations and numerous international organisations – and criticism.

Given this year’s theme of modernity and sustainability, many pavilions have used recyclable and high-tech materials, like the biodegradable solar cell soybean-fiber netting around the Swiss pavilion. Or Italy’s use of a translucent cement – a recently created multifaceted material that generates a twofold architectural effect that can help save energy. The British pavilion looks like a box with thousands of spines, which can swing in the breeze and hover without visible support above a public square.

However, organisers have failed to ensure all countries adopt the sustainable theme. Countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam instead have taken advantage of the opportunity to promote themselves as a tourist destination – missing the point of the exposition completely. With no trace of modern, environmentally-friendly or sustainable architecture in sight, their pavilions are replicas of traditional buildings that house historical relics, traditional art and food. Their exhibitions, rather predictably, make continuous reference to their respective countries’ diversity, history, traditional architecture and biodiversity.

Additionally, international media have taken fault with the theme itself as well as its goal to promote sustainable urban development practices. The New York Times wrote: “The event champions priorities that hardly seem to square with spending hundreds of millions of dollars constructing buildings designed to last six months.”

Even though Shanghai has spent roughly the same on the expo as Beijing spent on the Olympics, the sporting event managed to improve the city’s infrastructure. In contrast, organisers of the expo plan to remove or demolish the 200 pavilions at the end of October – no doubt adding further cost to the event and burden to the city’s landfills.

While any large international event is likely to garner harsh criticism, let’s hope the next expo in South Korea will at least live up to its motto.