As China shows off at world Expo, U.S. lacks pizzazz

SHANGHAI — Ask Chinese architecture and urban planning expert Wang Wei Qiang about Expo 2010 Shanghai China, and he'll go on about sustainability, the preservation of historic buildings and pavilion design.

Ask him about U.S. involvement in the expo, and his response is much simpler: a derisive laugh before he moves on to the countries that interest him more, the United Kingdom and Spain, for example, which have chosen bold and quirky designs for their pavilions.

About 70 million visitors — among them 10 million foreigners — are expected to visit the expo grounds, where some 250 countries and international organizations have pavilions or displays, before the event closes on Oct. 31.

The buildings range from the remarkable to the quirky to the pedestrian, and many critics say that the U.S. effort, which features, among other things, a large hall with corporate logos, falls into the latter category.

The U.K.'s pavilion has a skin that's been likened to that of a porcupine: The projections are thousands of rods that draw daylight to illuminate the building. Spain's pavilion looks like a series of rattan baskets. Brazil's is a bright green, net-like structure made of recycled wood. Austria's has a porcelain surface, while the Japanese pavilion is covered by a purple membrane embedded with energy cells.

Wang, a professor at Shanghai's Tongji University, isn't alone. Li Tiangang, a Chinese historian and a professor at Shanghai's Fudan University, said he was under the impression that the U.S. wasn't interested in the world expo.

"I know the Americans had a very difficult time," he said. "There wasn't enough support. They think the world's fair is very old-fashioned."

Funding shortages and an apparent lack of interest by the big corporations that usually help finance such projects plagued the USA Pavilion.

In March 2008, the State Department announced that it had given authorization to design, build and raise money for the USA Pavilion. Later that year, the nonprofit group that had been given the go-ahead, Shanghai Expo 2010 Inc., told the State Department that it was shutting down because of a lack of time and money.

In the spring of 2009, long after most other nations had begun work on their pavilions, Chinese officials, frustrated by the failing U.S. effort, asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene.

"We know that the Chinese authorities in mid-2009 were not amused with what was going on," said Bob Jacobson, a management consultant and strategic planner based in Tucson, Ariz., whose pavilion team was passed over by the State Department. "They saw this as being the exemplification of the American way of doing things."

Because U.S. law bars the use of federal money for international expos, pavilion organizers were forced to solicit corporate sponsorships with Clinton's help. This April, Citigroup signed a contract to donate the final $5 million for the $61 million pavilion, ending a yearlong fundraising campaign.

Although the theme of the expo is "Better City, Better Life," most of the buildings constructed for the project will be torn down when the expo closes in October. It's estimated that Shanghai spent about $45 billion getting ready for the expo, about what Beijing spent preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Nevertheless, the expo faces another problem in the U.S. and the West in general: indifference.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California Irvine who's the author of several books on China, said the lack of interest in the expo was disconcerting.

"You think, surely the rest of the world is paying attention, but the expo still hasn't gotten any kind of close attention in the West," he said. "It was disappointing that the U.S. took so long to get engaged. It seems that we were too slow to realize this was an event that was important enough to China that we should be involved in it."

Historian Li isn't worried about U.S. involvement, though.

"I don't know what kinds of things America can show," he said. "I don't expect too much."

Instead, Li focuses on what Shanghai has to offer: multiple cultures living together in harmony. He hopes this will be a chance for China to show the world that it can pull off another international event after the Beijing Olympics.

Kate Merkel-Hess, the founding editor of The China Beat blog, which provides context and criticism on contemporary China from China scholars and journalists, said this kind of confidence from the Chinese was no surprise.

"Like the Olympics, the expo demonstrates that China has arrived on the world stage," said Merkel-Hess, who's a postdoctoral scholar in the Humanities Center and the Department of History at the University of California Irvine. "Certainly, the Olympics were an important event for Chinese people and for the Chinese government, demonstrating that China is respected and important globally and that it can successfully play host to a major international event."

She pointed out, though, that the Olympics were more a product of than a cause of China's growing confidence, which she said came from the country's continued ability to weather the financial crisis "with relative ease."

(Schmelzlen, a student at Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)


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