The greatest show on earth?

With one year to go, Shanghai’s World Expo faces some challenges

The greatest show on earth?

The Little Mermaid: soon to be found staring at Pudong's skyline

Something will be missing from Denmark’s capital next year. As of next April, the Little Mermaid will be gone. She has survived poor weather and high tax rates, but the lure of Shanghai has finally dislodged the iconic statue from Copenhagen Harbour – and she will be making a star appearance at the Chinese city’s Expo.

She won’t be the only visitor. Shanghai is forecasting that the 184 day event will see 70 million visitors. Around 500,000 hotel beds will accommodate them.

The 2010 World Expo – which starts in a year’s time – is billed as Shanghai’s moment in the sun. This is the first time a World Expo has been held in a ‘developing’ country and much like the way Beijing awed the world with its Olympic opening ceremony, Shanghai is keen to impress.

The first Expo was held in 1851 in London. That event, known as the Great Exhibition, was the brainchild of Queen Victoria’s German husband Albert, who wanted to showcase the development of society through an exhibitions of manufactured products – most of which were then made in the UK.

Expos now occur every five years – the last was in Aichi Prefecture in Japan – but next year’s show in China is regarded by many as especially significant. Comparisons are being drawn with the 1893 Chicago World Fair, which signalled America’s arrival as a world power.

Recent Expos have been low key affairs – with locations that mostpeople would have trouble recalling (unlike, say, World Cup venues) – Shanghai’s is different. It has promoted the event assiduously since it won the hosting rights in 2002, with the Expo’s profile a major beneficiary.

Shanghai is also investing Rmb18 billion ($2.62 billion) on new infrastructure for the show, with a site covering 5.28 square kilometres and straddling five zones on either side of the Huangpu river. The biggest, zone B, will house the China Pavilion – a design based on a traditional Chinese roof which is costing a cool $200 million. But perhaps the architectural highlight is the Expo Performance Centre, which covers an area of 126,000 square metres, and looks like a giant flying saucer.

Shanghai views the Expo as a prestige project, but the city’s government also thinks it will boost the local economy. The authorities expect tourism revenues to jump by 50% to Rmb300 billion ($43.8 billion) in 2010 – thanks almost entirely to the event.

Indeed, Shanghai officials have been quick to draw comparisons with the 1933 World Fair (again, in Chicago), which was also held during a time of economic hardship. It hopes its Expo can also help the world out of recession.

But the global slowdown may yet rain on Shanghai’s parade. Initial sign up from exhibitors (well before anyone had contemplated bail outs and stress tests) was good. Expo’s organisers confirmed the participation of 234 countries – in fact, from everyone with whom China enjoys diplomatic relations, except Andorra and Colombia.

That was then; due to the downturn some nations have scaled back their plans. Hong Hao, who heads the Bureau of Shanghai World Expo Coordination recently told local media that Brazil and Argentina were among those scaling back plans. “Certain countries or international organisations have changed from a self-built pavilion to a rented pavilion or a joint pavilion, or in other words have shrunk the scale,” he said.

Around 40 nations agreed to build their own ‘showcase’ national pavilions; but worryingly for the Shanghai authorities, only half have started work on them. Unquestionably the biggest concern surrounds US participation. There is a genuine fear of a no-show.

The problem is that under American law the pavilion cannot be financed by the government, and in this climate it has been tough to find corporate sponsors willing to underwrite the $61 million structure (it was designed by Frank Gehry).

According to the Atlantic magazine, this is creating a stir: “Desperate to have a US presence at Expo 2010, the Shanghai organisers and their government patrons even began to explore the possibility of extending a loan to pay for the US pavilion.”

The Expo’s Hong notes that nothing has been settled: “I’ll be sorry if the US does not participate in the Expo, but I believe the American people will feel even more that this would be a pity. But if any country fails to take part for whatever reason, then of course we do have emergency plans.”

If Uncle Sam fails to deliver, the foreign pavilion that may prove the biggest highlight could be the Swiss one. It has an outer curtain made from degradable soybean and dye-sensitized solar cells and will be able to generate electricity. It also features a cable car.

But as if the potential American snub weren’t bad enough, Shanghai is even feeling testy about Beijing’s attitude to its big event. Metropolitan rivalries are never too far from the surface as far as the two cities are concerned. It has been noted that both Beijing’s Olympic Games and Paralympics made it into Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2008 Government Work Report – a speech of comparable political significance in China to America’s State of the Union address. However, the Expo wasn’t mentioned in Wen’s speech this year. According to Caijing magazine: “Shanghai citizens feel that the state is giving less emphasis to the Expo.”

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