Defending the USA Pavilion

And no, the Shanghai World Expo is not just a trade show.

Getty Images/AFP
Getty Images/AFP
Getty Images/AFP

Contrary to what reporter Adam Minter wrote recently in his article, "A Sorry Spectacle: The Uninspiring Saga of the United States’ World Expo Pavilion in Shanghai," the design and execution of the USA Pavilion has been not only impressive but inspiring.

The USA Pavilion, which will open its doors on May 1 as part of the first-ever World’s Fair hosted in China, will showcase American values, ideas, and culture to an international audience eager for knowledge about the United States and the world.

An estimated 70 million people are expected to attend what is officially known as Expo 2010 Shanghai, where more than 240 countries and international organizations will be represented. According to a recent poll conducted by Millward Brown ACSR and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, the USA Pavilion, currently in the final construction phase, is likely to be among the most popular foreign exhibits for Chinese Expo-goers.

This pavilion’s anticipated success is a testament to the leadership of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a group of citizens who think that the world’s top economic power and democratic beacon must take every opportunity to nurture the ever-important U.S.-China relationship.

World’s Fairs are about forging the ties that bind. The Shanghai event will knit a stronger relationship between the United States and China, and better relations in turn will help two proud countries cooperatively address vital global issues, from trade to climate change to security.

Thanks in large part to Clinton’s Office for the Global Partnership Initiative, we’ve managed to raise virtually all the funds necessary to build the pavilion, drawing support from a cross section of U.S. companies, municipalities, and states that recognize the value in reaching out to one of the United States’ most important trading partners and to the world.

The Office for the Global Partnership Initiative is focused on coordinating with like-minded countries and organizations on issues of common interest.

In particular, the pavilion’s planning and construction is an example of the Obama administration’s pursuit of more public-private partnerships — in which government works in tandem with the private sector in pursuit of mutually beneficial goals, such as increasing mutual understanding between the American and Chinese peoples, underscoring support for environmental protection, and boosting interest in American products and services that can help both citizens and government officials envision and build  a "Better City, Better Life" — the overarching theme of the Expo.

This USA Pavilion will give the American people a public presence at the Expo, while raising the profile of American corporations and organizations in the Chinese market.

Moreover, the pavilion will feature a diverse array of American musicians performing on stages throughout the massive Expo site — introducing international audiences to musical styles ranging from bluegrass to hip-hop to jazz. American jazz legend Herbie Hancock is just one of the Grammy Award-winning performers who is scheduled to perform.

I am particularly proud that Chinese and foreign guests will be greeted by 160 Mandarin-speaking American college students working as "Pavilion Student Ambassadors." Drawn from across the United States, from schools small and large, they will add a friendly human touch to America’s representation at the Expo. I am also proud of our efforts to highlight the achievements of the Chinese in the United States and through their experience to celebrate America’s immigrant heritage and commitment to diversity.

Chevron, Citigroup, Disney, General Electric, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, all of whom have donated or provided in-kind assistance to the pavilion effort, see their involvement as linked to their own corporate social responsibility missions. Other major U.S. companies donating or providing in-kind assistance include: Amway, American Airlines, Boeing, Dell, Deloitte, Dow Chemical, DuPont, FedEx, Harman International, Honeywell, Intel, Marriott, Mars, Microsoft, Panasonic Integrated Systems, Qualcomm, Visa, Yum! Brands, and Wal-Mart.

Yet, it would be a disservice to characterize the Expo as a mere trade show. Far from it. The USA Pavilion is an opportunity to project American ideals onto a grand stage. Toward that end, the pavilion will include displays about the freedoms and values that play such an important role in the lives of Americans.

A highlight for many of our guests will be the feature film in the pavilion’s main theater. The story is simple and compelling. The Garden tells an inspirational story of a little girl who dreams that a vacant urban lot visible from her window can become a garden; she wants to make her corner of the city a better place. A strong sense of optimism, community spirit, and perseverance in the face of challenge runs through this story — traits that run deep within the American character. Through its ethnically diverse cast of Americans, the presentation can be seen as a universal story reflective of how different countries must work together to achieve common goals, collectively forging a better world.

The USA Pavilion will open its doors despite the well-documented obstacles that have stood in its way, such as legislative limitations prohibiting the use of appropriated funding for an American presence at World’s Fairs unless expressly authorized by Congress. Practically speaking, this means that the money had to be raised from private donations. In good economic times, this provision presents formidable challenges, but during the Great Recession, this had the blocking force of the Hoover Dam.

In the end, however, we overcame the odds. The result: In Shanghai the United States. will have a world-class presence at the largest ever World’s Fair. The USA Pavilion, with its stirring design, cultural performances, student ambassadors, and memorable theater experiences, will draw millions of people eager for a glimpse of what makes America great. They’ll be inspired.

Jose H. Villarreal is the U.S. commissioner general to Expo 2010 Shanghai.
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