Come May this year and China will get ready to play host to the World's largest International
fair / exposition in terms of number of visitors. The event, themed ‘Better City, Better Life’, aims to explore different aspects of urban development, sustainability and harmonious growth. Five separately themed pavilions will aim to explore the various facets of this modern phenomenon and attempt to address issues like urban income inequality, resource limitations, urban migration and sustainable growth. Some 70 million people, 240 delegations, 100 heads of state and more than 50 international organisations are expected to visit the fair this year and China has pulled out all the stops to ensure that the event is mounted on a grand scale. When you consider that only around 5 million visitors turned up for the Expo's pervious edition, held in Zaragoza in Spain, you realize the magnitude of the event on hand. And the Chinese are well acquainted with the adage, ‘bigger is better’. The government has till date, spent upwards of 40 billion dollars on upgrading Shanghai’s infrastructure, in addition to the Expo’s budget of 4 billion dollars (which in total makes it more expensive than the Beijing Olympics). Shanghai now has 2 spanking new airport terminals, a competent subway system and a new 700 million dollar riverfront promenade - all aimed at sprucing up the city, which many locals believe is at the cusp of its ‘moment in history’, the Expo being just the trigger needed for the city to announce it’s pre-eminence at the world stage.
Interestingly, the Expo will also be as much about international politics as it will be about urban harmony. The US, unable to use government money to participate in fairs, had initially indicated non participation, but China’s growing clout forced Hillary Clinton to confirm a US pavilion on her last visit. The US government then went on a fund raising spree with the 60 million dollars required coming mainly from donations. Another case in point is American car maker General Motors, which sells more cars in China than it does in its home market. They were one of the first corporates to commit a pavilion at the fair (to showcase their clean technologies). With China’s recent dominance in the world economy, the Expo is as much a show of its current power as it is about making the world’s cities better places to live in. And many countries are happy to play along and cozy upto the Chinese. Japan, eager to mend its historically troubled ties with China, is spending 140 million dollars , a mere 6 million shy of what the Saudis are planning to cough up for their ‘crescent moon’ pavilion. Australia, a country that exports most of its natural resources to China and has generally had amicable relations with the Chinese, is keen to keep things that way and have undertaken to spend 76 million dollars for its participation. India, despite sharing a troubled relationship with the hosts, will spend 50 million dollars and will also fly top film stars and artistes to showcase its soft power. China, once a huge market for the socialist fare churned out by the likes of Raj Kapoor, will get a refresher course in Bollywood (‘Chini Kum’, hopefully not being part of the cinematic offerings) and India will hope for a less rocky road ahead with the Chinese as both powers remain competitors for natural resources to fuel their growing economies.
But there remain concerns though, more for the government than for the participants. China might have to pay a heavy social price for the Expo. In preparation for the games, thousands of city dwellers and business establishments have been shunted out of the city and relocated in remote areas at the peripheries. Many claim little or no compensation for the land lost, which has led to a fair bit of popular discontent among Shanghai’s residents. The Communist Party has paid an even higher price two years ago when it had to suspend its then secretary, Chen Liangyu, on charges of corruption. Chen, who was initially tasked with readying the city for the Expo, went about treating the city as his personal fiefdom, building what many believe to be unnecessary structures like a 290 million dollar tennis complex, an F1 race track and a proposed expensive magnetic levitation rail-line running straight from the Expo to the airport (and eventually linking Shanghai with Hangzhou), which turned out to be the final straw. Public outrage followed as citizens along the intended route were displaced and concerns were raised about magnetic radiation and noise levels. The government eventually had to give into the repeated protests by the activist middle class and investigations were launched into Chen’s dealings, leading to his eventual suspension on charges of fraud. The rail-line was eventually abandoned. Whatever Hu Jintao’s vision of ‘harmonious society’ (which refers to efforts to reduce income inequalities within the country) may be, the arbitrary and sometimes adhoc cosmetic facelift that the city has received may eventually create more discord than harmony, given that very few of the poor will actually benefit from the Expo. Questions still remain about the gainful use of the some of the structures after the fair has run its course. While the country pavilions will be torn down in six months time, the permanent structures may end up being money down the drain.
It is interesting to note that these are similar dilemmas that the Indian government faces as it readies the capital city for the Commonwealth Games, which is supposed to do for New Delhi what the Expo is doing for Shanghai. Urban regeneration, economic growth and the re-imaging of cities are now central themes for countries bidding for world sports events and world fairs alike, and one hopes that both leaderships will exercise foresight and caution in addressing the many real and human challenges which arise as a consequence, else all the billions of dollars spent will ultimately stand out in sharp contrast against the real requirements of the people and dreams of a ‘Better City, Better Life’ will eventually remain...just those.