Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, November 19, 2010

The World, Shanghaied

by Lauren Hilgers

Exposition: a type of nineteenth-century madness.

- Gustave Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idess recues


In April, on the third day of the soft opening of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai (theme: "Better City, Better Life"), officials held a press conference. They trucked journalists in on lime-green Expo buses, delivering the group to a building near the fairground's many-chambered heart. Desks were set up for us, all facing a series of live video projections of the Expo grounds. The supertitle atop each screen identified SCENES FROM THE MEGA-EYE. The job of running the press conference and keeping us happy fell to a man named Xu Wei, the Expo's natty yet slightly haggard Minister of Propaganda. He offered to answer questions on Expo services, most of which concerned complaints about Internet access. "That's why we have soft openings", Xu told the grumbling crowd. "To learn from our early mistakes". Louisa Lim, an NPR reporter sitting next to me, shuffled papers and pulled two printouts from a plastic sleeve, one of Gumby and the other of a squat blue Play-Doh biped with thick legs and a cowlick giving a thumbs-up. This was Haibao, the Shanghai Expo's Mascot: soft power in a cute blue package.

Haibao, whose name means "sea-treasure", has been leading the campaign to promote the Expo since 2007. According to the World Expo website, he is "a baby creature from the sea who has magical powers to become a robot". Below the many statues of Haibao recently erected in Shanghai, plaques feature an English caption: "It is created in the image of humanity and expresses our capacity to create wonderful lives and enjoy the fruits of our work". It also looks an awful lot like Gumby.

When Xu finally acknowledged her, Lim held up her two printouts. "Have you looked into the similarities between these?" she asked. With a great screeching of chairs, all the Chinese journalists in the room ran for her. Those who had nodded off started shouting: "What media are you from?" "Hold up the photos!" "Who are you?" Back in the crowd, someone hollered, "Who is Gumby?" Farther back: "Did you make Gumby?" "Are you Gumby?" Lim tried to escape but the rugby scrum followed, from one end of the room to the other. The portraits of Gumby and Haibao lay trampled on the floor.

The next day Gumby showed up in newspapers across the nation. "No one expected the female news reporter to shout accusations", reported one Chinese TV anchor. Chinese bloggers suspected that reruns of Growing Pains, which regularly features a Gumby doll, were at fault. Xu Wei's original answer also made the news: "If anyone felt their copyright had been violated, they would have sued us by now".


In the history of World's Fairs, none before Shanghai has been quite so large or international. More than 200 exhibitors have assembled on the banks of the Huangpu River, representing a selection of foreign and Chinese corporations and nearly all the nations in the world. Seventy million visitors are expected to attend the six-month event by the time the gates close in November. Never mind that the World's Fair faded from the consciousness of the West decades ago; China has spent on the Expo nearly twice as much as it did on the Beijing Olympics. City officials have done their best to re-create the hoopla of history's most iconic World's Fairs, and, along with excitement, they have invited the chaos that has marked the event since the Crystal Palace went up in London's Hyde Park.

The first World's Fair, the 1851 Great Exhibition, was championed by Queen Victoria's popularly unloved German husband, Prince Albert, who felt that Britain was lacking in both education and appreciation for the arts. He was not the first to have the idea -France had been holding national fairs since 1798, claiming that the events were "dealing a deadly blow to English industry".

Albert's plans for the fair were widely disparaged. British companies feared an open exhibition would draw foreign copycats eager to steal their ideas, and the populace balked at plans to fund the public event with private money. It took a mammoth effort to bring it about.

But once the gates opened, the fair - advertised as a mini-utopia, a ruler by which to measure mankind's development and a place to see (and purchase) really cool stuff -attracted enormous crowds. All classes of people mingled, checking out a leech-based barometer, model houses, and a gigantic lump of coal. Subscription clubs were started across the country, requiring members to put away a small amount of money each week, like pilgrims, for their eventual trip to the fair. The queen sometimes roamed the grounds unattended. "We are living at a period of most wonderful transition", said Albert, during a pre-exhibition meeting at London's Mansion House, "which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end - to which all history points - the realization of the unity of mankind".

The success of the London fair was taken as a challenge. France held its first international expo in 1855, pointedly adding a section focusing on the arts. In 1853 New York City held a small and relatively unsuccessful fair, conveniently skipped in most histories, in which they attempted a copy of the Crystal Palace; Philadelphia's is generally remembered as America's first World's Fair, scheduled to coincide with the country's centenary. Congress called the event "an exhibition of the natural resources of the country and their development, and of its progress in those arts which benefit mankind in comparison with those of older nations".

Not everyone over the years has been thrilled with the Enlightenment rationality of World's Fairs, which organize the universe according to the ideals of industrialization. An early critic, Dostoyevsky's underground man derided London's Crystal Palace for its soul-crushing utopianism. "You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed - a palace at which one will not be able to put out one's tongue or make a long nose on the sly", he complains. Indeed, as the Fair's themes evolved in the twentieth century, free will does seem to have yielded to, in a Chinese phrase, kexue fazhan, "scientific development". Technological progress was thrilling at the early fairs, where many people first experienced electricity, the telephone, or, at Saint Louis, iced tea. Industrialization and the space race may be things of the past in the West, but in China factories are still changing lives and space walks are important television events. China's government still has an interest in suggesting a logic to all this upheaval. As the Shanghai Expo's chairman, Hong Hao, put it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, "I think the key is now to solve the problems that have been brought about by development through development. The priority is development." If the Olympics were China's chance to present itself to the world, then the Expo is the inverse: this is China's chance to show the world to China, on its own terms.


My first day out after the official launch, I hoped to visit the North Korean, pavilion, a gray concrete box with a giant DPRK flag on one side and, on another, a giant photo of fluffy clouds. It was closed. I looked next door at Iran, a few yards away in what people had taken to calling "Axis of Evil Square", but Iran had what I considered at the time a long line to get in, so I headed to the Maldives.

The Maldives pavilion was misplaced in a little ghetto of Central Asian countries, small one-room affairs clustered together as an afterthought. Inside the Maldives there was a bank of sand that looked suspiciously like kitty litter, surrounded by a bunch of blue bathroom tiles on the floor. Some travel brochures were taped to a table. If this is what millions of Chinese will remember about the Maldives, they will come away from Mongolia thinking about a cashmere shop, a giant plaster dinosaur egg, yogurt, hard liquor, and some cans of Russian bean soup. Kyrgyzstan is an authentic-smelling yurt and a video of attractive models in colorful clothing.

Having breezed through the little countries, I decided that if any nation could keep alive the Expo's vaunted lineage of futuristic doodads, it would be Japan. Apparently, future Japan will be all about Chinese spectators fighting with Japanese ushers in pink fanny packs. It will also be about sewage-treatment plants and tricked-out one-person pod cars for people who seem like they'd be fine walking.

The Japan pavilion's most impressive technology was the crafty obscuring of incredibly long lines. The wait at first looked reasonable - maybe fifteen minutes - and ended up taking two hours. People kept cutting in front of me whenever the line wrapped back on itself. I was an utter failure at this game of Chinese lines: I tried stretching my arms out to grab the railings on each side, but somehow the cheaters still got by; to create a diversion, one person poked me in the face with an umbrella.

Inside at last, I was rewarded with a video presentation recounting the story of the crested ibis, an endangered waterfowl with white plumage and a beak resembling a letter opener that had been re-introduced to Japan through a joint Chinese-Japanese research project. In the video, people drove their pods along little roads in the woods and went off-roading in meadows. They made phone calls from their pods to say they'd spotted birds. The video concluded with a performance by a violin-playing robot. The pavilion's final stop had two Chinese opera performers in pods, trying their best to look comfortable while coordinating the pods in a dance. They then sang about the crested ibis.

The next day I visited the UK pavilion, a bristling sphere of acrylic rods with plant seeds embedded in the base of each rod; according to a pavilion staffer, the "Seed Cathedral" evokes the circle of life, the power of creativity, and everything else that is good in the world. The Brits had a rough start. Fairgoers angry about the long lines at the soft launch started scaling walls and throwing rocks, focusing their frustration on the "Dandelion", as they called it, whose interior consists of one small room, all rods and seeds. "People keep asking me where the queen is", the usher said. "Where are the tea and cakes, and where are the men in tall hats?"

Five minutes southwest lay Tanzania, which, for a small pavilion whose main attraction was a life-size model of a giraffe, proved oddly popular. The commemorative-passport stamping line spilled out of the pavilion, stretching all the way to Malawi. Moses, a Tanzanian studying in China, had volunteered to man the stamp. He'd arrived in China five years ago, speaking no Chinese, on a scholarship to Dalian University.

"People love the giraffe", Moses said. "One guy came up and he asked, 'How does it eat?' Then he picked up a bottle of water and said, 'Does it drink like this?' I said, 'No, man, that thing has hooves'."


I met with Jose Villarreal, commissioner-general of the US delegation, in his office inside the US pavilion, which is notable mostly for being incredibly drab and boring, flanked by a Burger King and a KFC (which, unlike the other Shanghai KFCs, does not offer a "Thick and Spicy Beef Pentagon"). Given the current state of world markets, Villarreal told me, it would have been inappropriate to build something whimsical and eye-catching.

"People say it looks like a mall", he said. "That's garbage". He preferred to consider the pavilion from above; from the air, someone once told him, it looks like a catamaran. From below, it looked a little like an eagle, or so Villarreal liked to think. He defied anyone who saw in it a resemblance to a multiplex to produce photographic evidence. I definitely thought it looked like a multiplex, a multiplex emblazoned with corporate logos; a friend of mine called it the NASCAR pavilion.

Still, day after day the crowds came, drawn by brand recognition alone. Usually the line was so long that Brazil took to bringing out a loudspeaker and encouraging the US queue to defect. "You will wait a thousand hours!"

The mere existence of a US pavilion is miraculous, considering how little attention Americans have given the World Expo. Our membership in the Bureau of International Expositions lapsed in 2002, when we refused to pay our dues. The last fair held in the United States (1984, New Orleans) was the only expo ever to go bankrupt. The federal government had to intervene. US law now forbids government spending on pavilions, so it is hardly surprising that America's Expo presence was very nearly a bust. Plans fell so far behind schedule that a Canadian architect had to be called in.

Nevertheless, Villarreal, a San Antonio lawyer, was thrilled to be in Shanghai. "The Expo is the greatest show on earth right now", he said, adding that he considered it "political malpractice" not to visit China in this day and age. He had insisted the US pavilion stock straw cowboy hats in a range of colors. "We had a week's supply", he said. "They sold out in a few hours!" When Hu Jintao visited, Villarreal gave him a giant belt buckle. "This", he said, "is public diplomacy at its best".


After weeks of brushing past the German pavilion, watching crowds wrestle with the military police, I finally got in on someone else's VIP pass. Rumor was, Germany really had a handle on how to expo.

The Germans named their pavilion, in Chinese, "Harmonious City", which sounds oddly similar to the slogan "Harmonious Society". (In China, getting "harmonized" is a euphemism for having your blog post mysteriously disappear or your art exhibit shut down.) George Trow called the World's Fair "the loneliest place in the world", but he never saw the happy, disharmonized mess inside the German pavilion or the British Elvises coiffed in repurposed floor carpeting and singing glory, hallelujah from the rooftops.

The German pavilion was filled with sustainable consumer goods, and there was a black-light chamber with aggressive techno music, but the main attraction was a circular room with what everyone called the Germans' "technology ball" hanging in the middle. People filed in along the walls. Two performers popped out. "Welcome to the Harmonious City", one of them said, in Chinese. "This sphere will show you what you can do with your energy". The gigantic ball, covered in LED screens, started changing colors. "Look!" he cried. "It's chaaanging". Apparently the ball responds to noise. "Look! It's a bus!" said the performer. "The bus is following me!"

At first the bus was not a hit. Then the performers invited the audience to yell. And after five hours in line, yell they did, hollering so loud the ball started swinging back and forth, changing colors. The performers hopped on scooters and wheeled around, and the ball began to follow them. People were screaming and banging on the metal netting in front of them, and under that spinning technology ball, in that overcrowded, superheated thunderdome, the banter began to sound meaningful. "What do you dream of?" they asked. "What is your harmonious city like?" "Harmonious city", bellowed one of the scooting performers as he went whizzing by. "It's. In. Your. Mind!"

_____

Lauren Hilgers lives in Shanghai.

Bill Totten http://www.ashisuto.co.jp/english/

7 Comments:

  • Lauren's discussion of the "USA" pavilion is sadly confused. I can't address each point this evening -- it's late in Tucson and I have to travel overseas -- but I'll go over it point by point in the morning.

    By Anonymous Bob Jacobson, at 6:52 PM, November 19, 2010  

  • PS But I liked much of what else she had to report.

    By Anonymous Bob Jacobson, at 6:55 PM, November 19, 2010  

  • So here's the skinny:

    1. US law does not prohibit federal funding of US participation in Expos. It merely requires State to get an appropriation for doing so. The whole press corps has repeated this falsehood for three years. Doesn't anyone fact check anymore?

    2. Jose Villarreal's justification for "a drab and boring" pavilion is disingenuous. He wasn't on the scene when the pavilion was designed by a Canadian architect -- not at the last moment, but in 2008 -- and redesigned by an unidentified "Chinese design studio," also in 2008, at the behest of Consul General Bea Camp.

    3. The fast food was abundant because among the largest investors in the private company that owned the pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., was Yum!, the giant fast-food conglomerate that coveted the "USA" pavilion's excellent location at the crossroads of the Expo.

    4. "Day after day the crowds came" to see the "USA" pavilion, and day after day they were mightily disappointed. Anyone who did some research among the visitors would have known that. However, it wasn't until the Expo was closing that Duke professor Liu Jang, acting dean at a Shanghai university, published a study demonstrating that the "USA" pavilion was considered the Expo's most disappointing national pavilion. Like the old advertising maxim goes, the best way to sink a brand is to advertise a failing product.

    5.Hilgers' glibness critiquing the mall-like exterior of the "USA" pavilion misses the forest for the trees, the forest being the privatization of public diplomacy represented by the "USA" pavilion, the constant malfeasances and misrepresentations by the "USA" pavilion team regarding what was being done in the name of the absent American people, the tax-exemption improperly bestowed on this commercial real estate/advertising deal by the IRS and the tens of millions in tax revenues to be made up it will cost American taxpayers, the $1 million price tag to buy carbon offsets -- in China no less, not even in the US -- to make the "USA" pavilion carbon-neutral, and on and on. I have a 17-page list of calumnies visited on America, its people, and their reputation on the world stage by the "USA" pavilion, the Shanghai Amcham, the Shanghai Consulate, and an unwary Hillary Clinton who saved the project in the eleventh hour not for the US but for the private surrogate running the pavilion and its 60-odd corporate sponsors. Btw, according to the IRS, the company hasn't filed a single required tax return in the three years that it's existed. At least none has been reported. How's that for transparency?

    None of this required all that much digging to get down to it, just keeping one's eyes open. But writers these days are apparently so pressed they can't be relied upon to call out even the most overt abuses. Rather we should ironically or satirically or naively laugh it off. What's $100 million in a slush fund run by friends of Karl Rove during a hotly contested national election?

    PS To head off the inevitable ad hominen rebuttal -- not from Lauren, but from the "USA" pavilion crowd, now facing possible investigations -- I was a member of the all-volunteer, Expo-veteran led and staffed BH&L Group that was judged most qualified to create the US Pavilion during a State-run 2006-7 RFP process. The process was abruptly, mysteriously aborted in November 2007 and three months later, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was spun into existence by the State Department in a secret, unnoticed, and uncompetitive process. It never met the terms set forth for it to actually build and run the pavilion -- like raising sufficient funding on its own -- but no one at State objected when it moved in at the Expo. Like they say, it's better to act now and seek forgiveness rather than to seek permission...meaning, in this case, to follow the law.

    By Anonymous Bob Jacobson, at 9:41 AM, November 20, 2010  

  • So here's the skinny:

    1. US law does not prohibit federal funding of US participation in Expos. It only requires State to get an appropriation for doing so. The press corps has repeated this falsehood endlessly. Does anyone fact check anymore?

    2. Jose Villarreal's justification for "a drab and boring" pavilion is disingenuous. He wasn't on the scene when the pavilion was designed by a Canadian architect -- not at the last moment, but in 2008 -- and redesigned by an unidentified "Chinese design studio," also in 2008, at the behest of Consul General Bea Camp.

    3. The fast food was abundant because among the largest investors in the private company that owned the pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., was Yum!, the giant fast-food conglomerate that coveted the "USA" pavilion's excellent location at the crossroads of the Expo.

    4. "Day after day the crowds came" to see the "USA" pavilion, and day after day they were mightily disappointed. Anyone who did some research among the visitors would have known that. As the Expo was closing, Duke professor Liu Jang, acting dean at a Shanghai university, published a study demonstrating that the "USA" pavilion was considered the Expo's most disappointing national pavilion.

    5.Hilgers' glibness regarding the mall-like exterior of the "USA" pavilion misses the forest for the trees, the forest being the privatization of public diplomacy represented by the "USA" pavilion, the constant malfeasances and misrepresentations by the "USA" pavilion team regarding what was being done in the name of the absent American people, the tax-exemption improperly bestowed on this commercial real estate/advertising deal by the IRS and the tens of millions in tax revenues to be made up it will cost American taxpayers, and on and on. I compiled a 17-page list of calumnies visited on America, its people, and their reputation on the world stage by the "USA" pavilion, the Shanghai Amcham, the Shanghai Consulate, and an unwary Hillary Clinton who saved the project in the eleventh hour not for the US but for the private surrogate running the pavilion and its 60-odd corporate sponsors. Btw, according to the IRS, the company hasn't filed a single required tax return in the three years that it's existed. At least none has been reported. How's that for transparency?

    Writers these days are apparently so pressed they can't be relied upon to call out even the most overt abuses. It's easier to ironically or satirically or naively laugh them off. What's $100 million in a slush fund run by friends of Karl Rove during a hotly contested national election? Just another couple of suitcases full of cash, that's what. Ha ha ha.

    PS To head off the inevitable ad hominen rebuttal -- not from Lauren, but from the "USA" pavilion crowd, now facing possible investigations -- I was a member of the all-volunteer, Expo-veteran led and staffed BH&L Group that was judged most qualified to create the US Pavilion during a State-run 2006-7 RFP process. The process was abruptly, mysteriously aborted in November 2007 and three months later, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was spun into existence by the State Department in a secret, unnoticed, and uncompetitive process. It never met the terms set forth for it to actually build and run the pavilion -- like raising sufficient funding on its own -- but no one at State objected when it moved in at the Expo. 'Tis better to act and seek forgiveness than to seek permission before acting...meaning, in this case, than to follow the law.

    By Anonymous Bob Jacobson, at 9:45 AM, November 20, 2010  

  • Three Things you need to know about Bob Jacobson -- the Unabobber:

    1. After he lost the State Dept competition, he filed a complaint against the winners with the State Department Inspector General. Can you say "Sore Loser?" The complaint went nowhere.

    2. Later he filed a complaint against the winners with the IRS. Sore loser again. The complaint went nowhere.

    3. Bob Jacobson claims he actually won the RFP

    http://www.chengduliving.com/greed-and-corruption-usa-pavilion/

    Not just a sore loser, but someone who has trouble with the truth.

    By Blogger invisible, at 8:51 AM, November 21, 2010  

  • "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people."

    -- Eleanor Roosevelt

    Invisible, who never gives his real name or bona fides, has made a career of pursuing me around the Internet trying to defame me. I guess I should be flattered.

    His or her problem is, the facts are what the facts are, and no amount of ad hominem attacks on me will alter them.

    As to these most recent little mudballs...

    1. In November 2009, I filed a Request for an Investigation with the State Department Office of Inspector General. My purpose was to discover what had gone wrong with the US pavilion process and come up with remedies in time for the next Expo, Yeosu 2012 and the next Universal Expo, Milan 2015. My RIF was referred to the Executive Office of the Secretary of State. I just received a note this week from the Office director indicating that a response from the Secretary is forthcoming.

    2. In May 2010, I filed a Complaint with the IRS against Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., the Bush Administration's surrogate at the Expo, based on a number of allegations. I published this Complaint on the web in several places, for readers to judge its veracity and appropriateness themselves. The IRS does not acknowledge or report on investigations, whether or not they are in progress. However, I have reason to believe that this Complaint is being taken very seriously. I send data and they send form thank-you letters.

    Many tens of millions in tax revenues are at stake depending on whether Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., was properly awarded tax-exempt status by the IRS. I maintain that as a de facto commercial real estate deal -- a private corporation whose state charger was in arrears -- Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., was not a charitable institution as described in IRS regulations. We shall see.

    3. BH&L Group, the all-volunteer, award-winning assemblage of Expo veterans of which I was part -- as described above, in the postscript -- was judged by the State Department reviewer to be the only applicant qualified to create and operate the US Pavilion in the final phase of the State Department's Expo RFP. We received a letter saying so. Then the RFP was mysteriously aborted, as also described above.

    Did BH&L Group "win" the RFP competition, given that no other applicant was deemed qualified? Most people would say, yes.

    Invisible isn't "most people," however. He or she answers to a higher power to which only he or she is privy. Last I heard, however, he or she hasn't won anything.

    NOTE: Anyone wanting a copy of the Request or the Complaint only has to send me an email with a legitimate name -- not a handle or pseudonym -- and I'll be glad to share one or both. Transparency and public awareness should be synonymous with American public diplomacy.

    Send your requests to:

    bluefire@well.com

    Thanks for your interest and your concern for the state of American public diplomacy. -- Bob

    By Anonymous Bob Jacobson, at 10:01 AM, November 21, 2010  

  • guess we all agree on the facts. bob didn't win. he lost.

    he has spent two years trashing the expo.

    he has secret proof he actually won, but he will not post it.

    sure bob.

    he has gone out of his way to file complaints with everybody.

    but nothing has happened.

    also, he smears Hillary at length.

    http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2010/10/8/908849/-Are-USA-PavilionShanghai-AmCham-Implicated-in-US-Chamber-election-scandal-Was-Hillary-used

    plus read the chengdu link. you'll love it when he has to tell the college kids he is arguing with, "I'm famous."

    yep, bob. you are famous just like you won the RFP.

    My advice: More tin foil for your head. They rays are starting to get to you.

    By Blogger invisible, at 11:45 AM, November 21, 2010  

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