Shanghai expo divides Chinese

One aim of the Shanghai Expo is to define the quality of life in Shanghai in the future

The Shanghai Expo is expected to attract 70 to 100 million visitors over the next six months, nearly all of them Chinese who are proud of the event.

This content was published on May 11, 2010 - 08:55

But some critics say the government should put the money to better use. They say such world fairs are expensive relics of the past.

“Imagine a domestic clothing brand with an excellent advertising campaign whose clothes you wear, feeling hip and totally connected,” wrote Han Han of Shanghai, one of the most popular bloggers in China.

“Then you go abroad and notice that in fact you’re wearing a brand that’s not at all fashionable, that is outdated!”

Han Han is not alone. In Beijing, at one of the larger universities in the capital, students openly express dismay.

“China would be much better to invest all the billions in education and medical care,” said one.

Hu Yan, a resident whose home was levelled to make room for the expo, has gone before the United Nations in New York to plead her case.


Cai Guoqiang, an artist, opened an exhibition, Da Vinci’s Peasant, in an apartment building in Shanghai. There one can find all sorts of makeshift robots, a submarine, a UFO, works of Chinese peasants and migrants who built modern China but are largely excluded from the official site.

Feng Zhenghu, a human rights activist, made a name for himself last year after he camped out at the Tokyo airport for three months when Chinese authorities refused to let him return home.

Now under house arrest, he has transformed his apartment in northern Shanghai into a museum of sorts. In it he presents 12 cases that portray him as a victim: of human rights violations, curtailed freedom of expression, no freedom of movement.

Chinese cannot visit the apartment and most of the exhibits have been confiscated.

Feng hopes to be able to keep his expo online and thinks that despite everything the real expo – the Shanghai Expo – will have a positive effect on human rights in China.

100-year-old dream

But these critical voices do not reflect the attitude of most Chinese to the exhibition. The vast majority of them are immensely proud of it.

"China has always wanted to show the world that it can take on a leading role. The expo is the realisation of a hundred-year-old dream," said James Qiu, director of the Dongtan wetlands park on Chongming island, linked to Shanghai by a huge motorway viaduct, which opened a few weeks ago.

The island dreams of becoming a unique example of a low carbon city in the next few years. Liang Jun, vice director of the Chenjia Town eco-city project is convinced that the expo will help it in this ambition.

“It will bring lots of people to Chongming, who will come with ideas, technology and money.”

Environmental challenges

Christian Gürtler, president of the board of the Swiss-Chinese Chamber of Commerce Shanghai, commented that “it’s the first time for about 80 years that a world exhibition has gone for a concrete issue”.

The choice of the slogan, “Better City, Better Life”, shows that China is facing up to the looming environmental challenges.

The city pavilions, gathered in the “best urban practices” zone, offer tangible solutions to issues of urban development.

"There is a pragmatic side to the Chinese which leads them to take advantage of the expo to think about what a model town in China should be like," agreed Nicolas Musy, a Swiss businessman who has been based in Shanghai for nearly 20 years.

“Another aim of the expo is to define the quality of life in Shanghai in the future. There’s no doubt that the expo will contribute greatly to improve that quality.”

Flavia Schlegel, director of Swissnex China and Switzerland’s vice consul-general in Shanghai, believes in the "serious and honest desire of the Chinese people and government to find solutions to current challenges."

“Talk about energy and sustainability is not just to please us,” she said.

Discovering the world

Her words were echoed at the Swiss pavilion, as the chair lift arrived at the end of the visit.

“This expo will make people more aware of the environment,” one mother told “We are learning from other countries about ecological issues,” her husband added.

But the argument you hear most often is that the expo is allowing people to discover the world.

"See the world without leaving China", the promotional video made by the expo organisers has been showing for more than a year now. The message has got through 100 per cent. And the rest of the world has been courting China.

As one visitor put it: “With the Olympics, it was China giving the world a party. With the Shanghai expo, it’s the world giving China a party.”

Alain Arnaud in Shanghai, (Translated from French by Tim Neville and Julia Slater)

The Expo

The World Expo Shanghai runs until October 31, 2010. Under the motto "Better City, Better Life" it offers an international platform for economic, scientific, technological and cultural exchange.

70 million people are expected to visit the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, with more than 90% originating from China.

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Superlative expo

Most expensive:
China says it has spent SFr 4.65 billion ($4.19 billion) on the expo. But given the cost of the infrastructure, the real cost is thought to amount to SFr64 billion - by far the most expensive world exhibition ever.

With a surface area of 5.28 km2, it is twice as big as the Principality of Monaco.

Most exhibitors:
192 countries and about 50 organsations.

Rainwater is used for flushing toilets and watering green areas; electric vehicles; biggest roof of solar panels in the world; air conditioning fed by the water of the Huangpu river.

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Who’ll be there

Swiss President Doris Leuthard will be in Shanghai on August 12 for the Swiss day with a “huge political and economic delegation”, according to Manuel Salchli, the director of the Swiss Pavilion.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey and Environment Minister Moritz Leuenberger could also be attending, in May and in September, respectively. This has yet to be confirmed.

Several cantonal and town cities are also expected to be represented. It is rumoured that Swiss tennis number one Roger Federer, a superstar in China, could come to the Pavilion, perhaps during the Shanghai Open in October. Betrand Piccard is also being mooted.

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