A showcase of China's rise and reach
TODAY, 8 June 2010
China has the most number of people on Earth and on the day I went to the World Expo at Shanghai, I felt as if all of them were there. The large crowds testify not only to the Expo's appeal to Chinese and foreign visitors, they also tell us something about China's future in the international community.
The Expo is a showcase for China and Shanghai, much as with the Beijing Olympics was for the capital. No effort seems too much. Nothing is too grand.
There are some 192 countries taking part but the Expo really showcases China's rise, reach and resources.
Estimates are that between US$40 billion ($56.8 billion) and US$50 billion was spent, almost twice as much as was spent for the Olympics. Spanning over 5 square kilometres on both sides of the Huangpu River, the site is the largest Expo ever.
Entering the gates, the first thing you see is the Chinese pavilion on the horizon. The red building stands on pillars like an inverted pyramid, six storeys tall and large as a city block, towering above all else.
The line to get in is the longest. Even with a special group pass, I took one and a half hours to get in. With a normal pass, you would wait for four to five hours. And this was on a Monday. Imagine the weekend crowds.
Inside, the exhibition mixes tradition and technology. One long wall mimics an old Chinese book painting, depicting details of ordinary village life. Modern technology then animates the figures. Seamlessly, the bullock cart moves and a woodsman chops a log, while the scene shifts from day to night, with lanterns aglow.
Outside, China's growing influence is writ large. Developed regions like the United States, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have put up impressive exhibitions to try to draw business and tourists from China. But many other countries have also turned up - countries which might have been less enthusiastic about an Expo held in the US or Europe.
North Korea and Iran are there. So too are nations from Africa, Middle East and West Asia. This shows the global and still-growing reach of the hosts.
Some have attractive offerings. The Saudi Arabian pavilion, for instance, is the second largest and so popular that visitors have had to wait for five to even eight hours to get in. Small and politically troubled Nepal has built an expensive and impressive pavilion built in the style of its ancient temples and stupas, and draws some 40,000 visitors per day.
Even Taiwan is present - although it is diplomatically situated away from the Hong Kong, Macau and China pavilions.
The Chinese organisers want to attract the most visitors ever in Expo history. For May, the first full month, more than 8 million visitors came. On some days, the daily figure hit half a million. The Chinese hope this will grow to total 70 million by the end of October. To achieve that, throngs of Chinese from all around the country have been visiting the Expo.
It is easy to imagine that party officials have bussed them in to swell the numbers. But national pride and curiosity could also be reasons.
Whatever the reason, the crowds that help this Expo vie to be the biggest may not show China in the best light. As the queue inches forward, many visitors push and squeeze. China is fast developing but it seems less clear if the ordinary mainland Chinese are. The theme of the Shanghai Expo is "Better City, Better Life". But at the end of a long day of crowds, queues and walking under the sun, the visitor's experience can make the theme seem ironic.
A book by the well-known journalist Thomas Friedman argues that the future world will not be better, but hot, flat and crowded. The World Expo is, too.
Amid the squeeze and shove, the Expo experience hints at what the future might look like. The US and European economies struggle and China continues to rise. The country plans to stand largest and tallest above other powers - like its pavilion.