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Apr 29th 2010 | SHANGHAI | From The Economist print edition|
Something in between a trade fair, a funfair and a template for global domination
WHEN it comes to making theme parks work, China’s record is rather a poor one. In the suburbs of Shanghai weeds entwine the railed-off entrance to an abandoned amusement centre, called American Dream, a $50m venture that spectacularly failed to inspire. In the same city on May 1st China opens its greatest such project to date with a lavish ceremony attended by Chinese and foreign leaders. Called the World Expo, Shanghai has gambled billions on it, hoping to make it a huge tourist attraction and a symbol of the country’s rising power. But problems lie ahead.
The city’s lavish spending on the expo is all the more striking given how lacklustre a brand World Expos (or World’s Fairs as they are sometimes known) have become in the developed world. Few even remember the last such event held in Aichi, Japan, in 2005, let alone the one in Zaragoza, Spain, in 2008, which in the arcane terminology of the business, dictated by the Bureau International des Expositions in Paris, did not actually count as a full-scale “universal” expo.
Shanghai, however, is hoping to attract 70m visitors to its six-month fair, more than three times as many as went to Aichi and 12 times more than to Zaragoza. It says it has spent $4.2 billion on the event alone—more than twice as much as Beijing spent on the Olympic games in 2008—plus tens of billions on accelerated improvements to the city’s infrastructure.
Officials tend to avoid the term “theme park” to describe the expo, but that is what it is. Long gone are the days of the Great Exhibition in London of 1851, the progenitor of all expos, when the point was to show off manufactured goods (and British industrial strength). Shanghai’s expo grandly states its purpose as being to stimulate discussion of “urban maladies”. “Better city, better life” is its slogan. Sometimes officials call it China’s “economic Olympics” as if it were a huge trade fair where business deals are struck (it is not). A better explanation was given by a senior expo organiser last year. Visitors, he said, were supposed to experience “the sensation of being in a fantastic movie of light and sound, or entering a theme park full of colour and attractions”. Fun is a central objective.
Another is instilling patriotic pride, a motive very familiar to expo organisers of yesteryear. More than 190 countries have put up displays or pavilions, often bizarre architectural follies. But these are dwarfed by the 63-metre-high China pavilion (above) a colossal edifice resembling an ancient imperial crown. It is painted in the oxblood red of Beijing’s Forbidden City and is intended to awe visitors in much the same way. The eco-friendly themes that some other countries have tried to convey with their pavilion designs have been eschewed by China in favour of a demonstration of power and might.
But the organisers face difficulties. Only about one-eighth of the 400,000 visitors expected on average each day will be able to get into the Chinese pavilion (though unlike most of the other structures, this will not be dismantled after the expo). Prior booking will be necessary. Others, despite having spent between 160 yuan ($23) and 200 yuan on tickets, will have to content themselves with the more modest foreign offerings. But most visitors will be interested in only a handful of these.
Trial runs have found massive queues forming at the popular pavilions. The American and British ones are among the biggest draws. Waiting has been taking two or three hours. One day a Chinese visitor could be heard rebuking an American official outside the American pavilion, closed because of a technical hitch. “I came to this pavilion first as a sign of respect to your country,” he fumed. Organisers will be praying that no more hiccups occur. The vast scale of the site, 20 times bigger than the one at Zaragoza and more than twice as large as Aichi’s, means covering long distances between pavilions, and there are also queues for buses. In Shanghai the weather in summer is extremely hot and humid. Tempers could easily fray.
Selling the “better city” theme is also an uphill task. For all its eco-friendly talk, Shanghai has shown the same disregard as other Chinese cities for those displaced by its relentless development. Some 55,000 people had to make way for the expo site on the banks of the Huangpu River. Thousands more are now being moved to make way for another, more conventional, theme park: Disneyland. Shanghai Daily, a government-controlled newspaper, this week said the Disneyland project would be “another new bright spot” of the city’s development after the expo.
Ground zero of this is the village of Zhaohang, about 15km (9 miles) east of the expo site. Late last year a government pamphlet sent to residents hailed the Disneyland plan as a “major move” in Shanghai’s service economy. In recent weeks much of the village has been reduced to rubble. But a few families are holding out for better compensation, even as demolition crews tear down their neighbours’ houses. “The government is very cruel to us,” says one such resident, over the crash of tumbling masonry. A red banner hanging over what remains of a nearby street calls on the village to “happily welcome the grand gathering of the World Expo with our civilised new image.”
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