China Rules the World at Expo 2010

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Click here for a slideshow of national pavilions at Expo 2010.

At precisely 9 AM on May Day, hundreds of new turnstiles will begin to spin along the banks of Shanghai's Huangpu River, giving way to more than half a million visitors as they inaugurate the opening of Expo 2010, the most expensive and well-attended World's Fair in history. To American ears, the concept of a World's Fair sounds archaic, and when applied to Shanghai, a contemporary symbol of all that is new, vibrant, and even threatening, it's disconcerting. But in Shanghai, where the future is an obsession, this reported $46 billion hat-tip to the past makes perfect sense: just as New York once announced its global pre-eminence via World's Fairs in 1939 and, again, in 1964, the organizers of Expo 2010 view the six month event as nothing less than Shanghai's coronation as the next great world city.

World's Fairs have their origins in medieval European trade fairs, with their modern incarnation coming in 1851, with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents , held in London. Organized by Prince Albert, the Great Exhibition's primary purpose was to display the fruits and achievements of high Victorian England and its empire. Its most famous display piece-- the steel and glass Crystal Palace designed and built to hold much of the Exhibition--was a technological and architectural wonder that was unequaled. London's status was enhanced and, soon after, cities in the United States and Europe, eager to emulate its success, held their own Expos, often featuring at least one dynamic new piece of architecture. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, for example, featured the Eifel Tower; Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 introduced Chicago's famous Midway; and, most recently, the Expo 67 in Montreal featured Buckminster Fuller's Montreal Biosphere, a twenty-story high geodesic dome.

By the early 20th century, World's Fairs had become such important and competitive events that a treaty was actually drafted and signed to prevent conflicts over them. Henceforth, World Expos, like Shanghai's, would be held every five years, for duration of six months; International Expos would be held between them, for three months, and on a smaller scale. The regulating agency, the Bureau de International Expositiones [BIE] is located in Paris. Regulation, however, didn't dampen enthusiasm for the events. They continued to grow, and become more elaborate. Yet, with the advent of modern communications and international travel, they also changed. No long were they glorified trade fairs at which countries displayed their new goods and technologies; instead, they evolved into elaborate nation branding events. So, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union spent extravagant sums building national pavilions meant to represent their technological, political, and cultural superiority to each other--at Expos hosted in other countries. Meanwhile, Expos began to take on new meanings for host countries. For example, in Canada the 1967 Montreal Expo is still viewed as a critical moment and symbol of the former colony's emergence from Britain's shadow.

The American ardor for Expos began to wane in the 1970s. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition went bankrupt in the midst of its run, and during the 1990s Congress severely restricted the US government's ability to fund the building of US pavilions. Even so, Expos continued to be held successfully; Expo 2000 in Hannover attracted 25 million; Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, attracted 22 million. Still, the Expo movement was in undeniable decline until December 3, 2002, when Shanghai was awarded Expo 2010 over four other cities. China's increasingly large stake in the global economy meant that countries--including the United States--that didn't participate in World Expos, anymore, could ill afford to miss the branding opportunity that Shanghai's offered. At the same time, an increasingly confident China intimated that a failure to attend would be duly noted. A lack of financial resources would not be an object, either: China has been clear from the beginning that it would subsidize if not outright finance the participation of poorer nations at Expo 2010. Whether it wanted to attend or not, the world was expected.

Today the Expo site covers 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank. At the heart of it is the China pavilion--the "Oriental Crown"--a massive, two-hundred-foot-tall structure that incorporates traditional Chinese architectural and design elements into a massive structure that looms, coolly, over the entire site. It's not exactly the Crystal Palace, but the message is eminently clear. Surrounding it are roughly 170 additional, smaller (by the rules) pavilions grouped by continent and region, each--in its own way--attempting to project a national brand and place in the global order. The politics are sometimes comically obvious: the China pavilion practically hangs over the Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan pavilions; meanwhile, the U.S. and Japanese pavilions are exiled to the far ends of the Expo site, as far from the China pavilion as physically possible.

But politics plays only a small part in this. Indeed, the expected 70 million visitors will quickly note that there are buildings of genuine grace and beauty scattered throughout the grounds. During the crowded, week-long soft-opening that concluded on Monday, it was these buildings that were among the most popular with the hundreds of thousands of Shanghainese who braved rain, heavy-handed security, and chaos to see what has taken eight years to prepare. Ironically, six months from now, at the end of the Expo, the BIE's rules require that all of the pavilions be demolished or moved. And so, if there's an Eifel Tower, a Crystal Palace, or a Montreal Biosphere among them, there's only until October 31 to know it in its natural habitat, the fabulously expensive and elaborate Shanghai Expo 2010.

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Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg World View blog. He is writing a book about the globalization of the scrap recycling industry for Bloomsbury Press.

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