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Dispatch from China: Shanghai Expo … zzzz…

The World Expo in Shanghai, which involved massive mind-boggling construction projects and kicked off over the weekend with a grand fireworks display, might remind some of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But that’s about where the comparison ends. The Olympics was an event that genuinely captured the public imagination in China. In Beijing, locals complained about ...

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Image
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Image

The World Expo in Shanghai, which involved massive mind-boggling construction projects and kicked off over the weekend with a grand fireworks display, might remind some of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But that’s about where the comparison ends.

The Olympics was an event that genuinely captured the public imagination in China. In Beijing, locals complained about the traffic hassles and construction dust up until the day the Games started, but when the fireworks started, that changed. I was in China that summer, and frankly surprised by the extent to which people from different walks of life cared about an event that did not concretely impact their own lives. McDonalds in Beijing were packed with ping-pong fans, all heads turned to wall-mounted TV sets to watch doubles matches with baited breath. Street venders brought portable, flickering TV sets outside to watch the opening ceremonies. College students from nearly every corner of China can tell you stories about the mood in their dorms when friends gathered to watch the Games. Sure there was hype, but also genuine enthusiasm.

Not so the Shanghai Expo. Few non-Shanghaiese seem to care. In the city of Chongqing, a business hub in southwestern China, I’ve been taking an informal poll; reactions here range from uninterested to slightly resentful.

At root, the Beijing Olympics was an opportunity for the government of China to put on a grand show for its own people, and secondarily the world. Before the Games even started, the Olympic torch relay followed an extraordinarily long and winding path through much of the Chinese hinterlands, with official pronouncements and media coverage every step of the way; the message was that glory should be shared. Certain glitches that offended international audiences – such as a young starlet who was outed for lip-synching in the Opening Ceremonies to a less attractive peer’s vocal track — hardly fazed the domestic audience, which was the primary target.

In contrast, the Shanghai Expo is about the government of the city of Shanghai putting on a show for the world, and secondarily other cities in China. It’s about attracting business opportunities and stoking rivalries – between Shanghai and other large cities in China, and between the various countries that have poured money into building the biggest and boldest exhibition pavilions. It’s a show, in other words, mainly of interest to its participants.

Maybe Shanghai will get substantial bang for its buck, in terms of future business or international clout. But most of China is tuned out.

Christina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing.

Tag: China

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