One mile downriver from downtown Shanghai, tractors and construction crews are busy clearing land and erecting national pavilions for the 2010 World Expo – or World’s Fair. At one end, the massive $200 million Chinese pavilion has already emerged from the riverbanks to tower over dozens of others, a fitting symbol of China’s signal role in organizing what will be the biggest Expo in history, and the most anticipated since the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Meanwhile, at the other end, the 60,000 square-foot plot of land that the Chinese government has designated for a United States pavilion remains empty, its future, and the question of U.S. participation altogether, tied up in behind-the-scenes maneuverings and State Department incompetence.
“National pavilions are supposed to represent who we are as a nation and a culture,” explains Barry Howard, a California designer who has been involved with Expos and pavilions for over four decades. “They tell a story of whom we’ve become and who we’ll be.” So far, the story of the U.S. pavilion for the 2010 World Expo has not been flattering for the United States. And on April 15—the deadline day for the U.S. to sign an Expo participation agreement—it may become an outright embarrassment.
If Expo 2010 were being held anywhere else – say, Amsterdam – there wouldn’t be any pressing need for a U.S presence. But just as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (better known as the World Columbian Exposition) signaled the ascendance of the U.S. as a major industrial power, and the 1964 New York World’s Fair suggested U.S. technological superiority, 2010 seems primed to represent the rise of Chinese economic and political power in the 21st century. A no-show by the U.S. would convey as much about America’s diminished place in this new geopolitical order as does its ongoing run-up of Chinese-owned debt. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has indicated that a no-show might be taken as a snub. Though few Americans are paying attention now, come May 1, 2010, when the expo opens, surely many would wonder why the U.S. is not represented among the gleaming, architecturally significant pavilions on the Shanghai riverbanks.