China's Expo 2010 Shanghai, opening May 1, is a world fair in the tradition of Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851, combining statements of patriotism and global ambition. But why is China producing a world fair, and what messages is it trying to send?

  • Largest World Fair In History UC Irvine history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, writing at The Huffington Post, comments on the sheer size of the event, and tries to explain why China is hosting it so soon after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing:
One way to think of the 2008 Games and 2010 Expo is as a combination of events that China hopes will signal how far it has come in the course of a century or so, and how far behind it has left its former reputation as the "sick man of Asia." Its intention is to leave no doubt that it is now a place with not just one but two cities where great global events can be held.
  • A Theme Park with an Urban Theme "Officials tend to avoid the term 'theme park' to describe the expo, but that is what it is," declares The Economist. This isn't a display of "manufactured goods (and British industrial strength)" like the 1851 "progenitor" of all subsequent world fairs. "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)." Rather, the twin objectives are fun and patriotism, with pavilions for different countries (and the Chinese pavilion towering above them all). "The American and British ones are among the biggest draws," The Economist notes.
  • Shows Modernization, Promotes Understanding, says Liu Xiaoming, Chinese Ambassador to the UK, writing in British newspaper The Telegraph. "The theme of the Expo ... reflects how hard China is working to upgrade its industrial structure, and shift the economic pattern from the consumption of energy and resources towards sustainable and low-carbon development. In doing this, we will be trying to learn from the best ideas and practices of other countries--and the Expo offers Britain a major opportunity to present the best it has to offer." He also says the British pavilion, with "performances by the Royal Ballet, the London Symphony, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic ... will go a long way towards updating the old image held by the Chinese of Britain as a cold, foggy country inhabited by people with overcoats and umbrellas, projecting instead an image of your country as a magnet for ideas, innovation and investment."
  • 'By the Numbers' The Christian Science Monitor's Carol Huang collects figures on the expo which, laid next to one another, are clearly intended to show some of the mixed messages and complications of the event. The height of the Chinese pavilion, she reports, is 207 ft. The height of the "next tallest pavilion" is 69 ft. Here are some of the other figures she highlights:
Size of Expo grounds: 5.3 square kilometers (2 square miles)
Times the previous Expo, held in Spain in 2008, could fit into the Shanghai Expo grounds: 20 ...
Households bulldozed to make way for the site: 18,000 ...
Estimated cost (in media reports): $55 billion
Estimated cost of Beijing Olympics: $40 billion
Official estimated cost of Expo: $4.2 billion ...
People detained by police in a pre-Expo crackdown: 6,000
People sent for reeducation through labor for Expo-related reasons this year: 10
People detained or placed under house arrest: dozens
  • 'The Politics Are Sometimes Comically Obvious,' admits Adam Minter for The Atlantic, in a story that also provides photos of the pavilions. "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." Likewise, "nobody knows who among the Shanghai Expo Bureau decided to make two inaugural members of George W. Bush's 'Axis of Evil' into neighbors, but the placement--intentional or otherwise--has been the cause of early buzz among Expo participants." That said, politics is "only a small part," he says, and "there are buildings of genuine grace and beauty." Thus far, "the runaway favorite of the Chinese public and other Expo participants" is the UK pavilion, which prominently features seeds from the Kew Millenium Seed Bank.