Investor Q&A

Worth the fuss and expense?

A China expert assesses the impact of Shanghai’s $45 billion Expo

Worth the fuss and expense?

Rowswell: China’s most famous foreigner

At 10.17am last Sunday, the Shanghai Expo saw its 70 millionth visitor pass through the turnstiles. That meant the event had reached its self-declared attendance target – defying those who wondered why the city had spent an estimated $45 billion on the extravaganza (mostly, to be fair, on the accompanying infrastructure).

This Sunday marks the Expo’s final day, and as its six month run ends, it’s fitting to ask: what has it achieved?

Who better to talk to than Mark Rowswell? Xinhua reckons that Rowswell (known locally as Dashan) is the most famous foreigner in China (see WiC6 and 42). A household name for his perfect Mandarin, as well as his expertise in the comedy technique known as cross-talk, he’s also spent more time at the Expo than most – as commissioner general of his native Canada’s pavilion.

Has Expo been a success for Shanghai?

Yes, but it’s been a huge investment and there are now a lot of questions being asked about measuring its impact. The officials from Ottawa were here and asking me whether it will increase tourism to Canada.

The real problem is: how do you measure the impact of something like this? In the West we are a bit jaded by Expos. We often think of them as something that belongs to the last century, especially in North America. I think Expos are very much tied to the stage of a country’s development. There’s no question that this Expo fits into where China is now in its development story. This kind of blowout event doesn’t necessarily make sense in Canada or Europe, but after 32 years of reform and opening, it’s a great window on the world for China.

Here’s how I look at it: the Olympics in 2008 was really a chance for China to put on a show for the world. We all watched and saw China’s incredible achievements. It wasn’t about the Chinese learning about the world. The Expo is the corollary of that. China has created a stage for the world to come to Shanghai and put on a show. Around 98% of the visitors are Chinese and they’re coming to the Expo to learn a little about other countries and visit their pavilions.

The ordinary mom and pop Chinese need to learn more about the world. So it’s a good thing.

What would they learn about Canada?

It’s hard to compare the pavilions, as each country has adopted different strategies. In Canada the pavilion was run by our department of Canadian Heritage – which is basically our ministry of culture – but we took the creative design out of the hands of bureaucrats and gave it to the Cirque du Soleil, which is perhaps Canada’s number one cultural export. We said give people an impression of what Canada is like, and let’s not talk about the maple leaf, Niagara Falls and mounted police. Lets get beyond that. We don’t want to reinforce the stereotypes.

Our pavilion is a little impressionistic; it’s not a tourism promotion video. The movie at the end is supposed to be a little downbeat and contemplative. It’s not what you’d expect. It gets beyond stereotypes.

It’s a day in the life of cities in Canada. It features Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Toronto, Quebec City and is all blended in. It’s supposed to be a five minute montage and it’s very artistic. People have asked me if that film has won any awards. We had a vice-president from Disney come through, and he thought it was one of the two most creative pavilions on the site.

On the second floor we have an area for events – which members of the public don’t see. That’s less impressionistic. It’s where all of our trade and ‘study in Canada’ messages were targeted at specific audiences. Almost every day we’ve done events selling these more hard-hitting messages to business people and government officials. So it’s a multi-faceted approach.

The whole thing about Expo is that it’s really just a platform. It’s a question of what you make of it.

Which pavilions impressed you?

I like Mexico. They have brought in first class national treasures: statues and artwork that are a thousand years old. The French Pavilion has the Rodin statue and five or six impressionist paintings. The Danes brought the Little Mermaid.

Comparing the German Pavilion and the UK one speaks to the different approaches. The UK has a really simple concept and it is done really well. It just takes 20 minutes to see, and it is great country branding. It says we’re not stodgy Britain anymore, we are cool and funky UK.

The German Pavilion nearby is full of industrial products and inventions, and everything is explained in three languages. You could spend two hours going through there and still not see everything. Which approach is better? I don’t know. They are just different.

Have queues been a big problem?

Yes, it’s been an issue. The park is designed for 630,000. But a couple of Saturday’s ago 1.1 million turned up. It’s already beaten Osaka as the most attended Expo. But you sort of assume in China they’ll break all the attendance records.

Our pavilion was designed for 30,000 per day, and in the early days we averaged around 31,000. But recently we peaked at as many as 50,000 per day.

It’s really a function of pavilion design. I remember being at a meeting where the Turkish Commissioner General said he objected to classing the ‘popular’ pavilions as those with the longest lines. He said Turkey was getting 30,000 a day, and with all due to respect to Saudi Arabia, who have had the longest lines, their capacity is only 22,000 a day – which is why their lines were so long. The Saudis designed it as ‘low capacity, high interest’ – it’s by far the most expensive pavilion too.

Excluding China’s Pavilion, the pavilion claiming the highest average traffic is France’s. The French say they are receiving over 50,000 a day.

What will be done with the pavilions?

This has been a question all the way through. The contractual agreement is that we must return the site to its original condition, which is just a flat piece of land.

All of the international pavilions are supposed to be temporary structures. Of course, everyone wants to recoup costs, so most are open to discussions about selling the pavilions and so forth. I think it’s difficult for most – including ours – because it’s not supposed to be a multi-purpose building. To move it somewhere else is not cost effective. We haven’t reached a final conclusion, but I think pieces will be sold off, and donated to museums in China and Canada. The exterior wood can be recycled.

People have talked about creating an Expo park around a property development. It would contain the China Pavilion and a few others, such as the UK’s which is not so much a pavilion as a work of art or a monument. But my understanding is that the UK plan is to take the pavilion’s 60,000 acrylic rods, cut them into sections and donate them to schools around China.

Will the Expo have any lasting legacies?

For the Chinese this is another milestone in recognising their place in the world. In my twenty-something years in China I’ve noticed a real stirring of the Chinese psyche. It’s kind of weird to use the term ‘maturing’ when you are talking about a nation with 5,000 years of history, but because it had been closed for so long, the China of the 1980s was a very immature society.

When I came here in 1988 I noted that Chinese people wavered between two extremes: they were either overly-proud of their civilisation or they thought the country was a basket case and they had to get out of the country or completely Westernise.

The rise in Chinese pride is a healthy tendency. What they have achieved in the past couple of decades has made China more confident, and more open to learning from the outside. While the ugly side of the trend is nationalism, on the whole, I think society has a greater balance and the Expo symbolises China finding its place on the world stage.

For more on the Expo, see our Focus edition on the event, which can be downloaded from our website

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