Blunt talk from China on the US Expo 2010 pavilion.

[Additional Expo related articles and posts here, here, here, and here. More to come in the days and weeks ahead.]

Quite a bit of discussion on Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, on whether or not US interests are served by building a pavilion for Shanghai’s Expo 2010. That’s good: Americans need to be thinking seriously about this issue. So far, however, the Shanghai and Beijing governments have been unusually reticent about why they think the US should attend (beyond general statements that the US will “regret” it we don’t), and that’s given the debate a bit of an incomplete feel. Thus, I was quite interested to learn of a May 7 editorial on this very subject which appeared in the influential state-owned China Youth Daily, and People’s Daily. So far as I’ve been able to determine, an official English translation hasn’t yet appeared, but thanks to the (heretofore unknown to me) Watching America site, we have an unofficial one, here. Chinese, or English, the editorial does not mince words:

The lack of enthusiasm in America has something to do with its national traditions. American has traditionally pursued isolationism and is only concerned with itself rather than the outside world. Even though things changed after the second world war, on the whole, Americans still believe devoutly that “all politics are local,” and the congressmen only care about things that affect their own district. Naturally they do not approve of allocating money for this exposition.

I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time reporting on the US Expo pavilion, and in my experience, the argument against usually goes something like this: the US already has a significant commercial and cultural presence in Shanghai, and in China, and with so much going on in the world – and in the US – isn’t there a better place to spend the US$61 million that the current, troubled US pavilion team is trying to raise? An unrelated argument, but one that is taken seriously in various quarters (including, some quarters of the US State Department) is that the US would be merely be “feeding the Chinese propaganda machine” if it builds a stand-alone Expo pavilion.

In response, many – if not most (in my experience) – US defenders of a US pavilion resort to the face-slap defense  (for evidence of this argument’s popularity, click here). That is, a failure to attend Expo 2010 will be perceived as a slap-in-the -ace by the Chinese people (and the CCP), and Sino-US ties will be damaged accordingly.

The People’s/Youth Daily editorial addresses and dismisses both sides in a rather unexpected manner:

It is worth noting that some media have stated incorrectly that the U.S. has not decided to attend exposition due to financial difficulties. The Associated Press reported that if the United States is absent from the world expo, China will take it as a slap in the face. Experts in China also remarked that America is worried that the absence will hurt Sino-U.S. relations and will harm America’s commercial investment interests in China.

If you read the sentences above carefully, you’ll find something worth thinking about: America’s absence is not “slapping China in the face,” rather, the absence makes China feel as though it’s being slapped.

The connotation is important: Whether the United States attends the expo is not important to America; but it is particularly important to China. These different views will cause unnecessary conflict.

In fact, whether the United States attends exposition or not has little to do with the success of the expo.

So why then, from the point-of-view of two highly influential government-run newspapers, should the US attend the Expo?

Whether the United States attends the exposition or not has little to do with China saving face or Sino-U.S. relations, but is related to its commercial interests … [I]n 1964, the New York World Expo showed off the American technological advantage, and because of China’s economic boom, China will undoubtedly play a leading role in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. If America is absent, how will people view America’s current international status? The Shanghai expo is more important than the expos in other countries, because it will be hosted in the biggest city in the country with the third largest economy. If America is absent, it will damage American interests in China.

The complete editorial is worth a read, especially for those Americans who believe that national ambivalence justifies non-attendance (somewhat related: a friend challenged me to choose which matters more to most Americans, the America’s Cup, or Expo 2010; I conceded the former). It doesn’t. In any case, at some point, hopefully, the State Department, other relevant agencies, and even Congress will exert some quality leadership to pull the US pavilion out of the gutter in which it is currently stuck.

[For the record: The People’s/Youth Daily editorial references a piece that I reported last month for the Atlantic.]

9 comments

  1. My 2 cents:

    I’ve always half sarcastically pointed out that if America can’t afford it, China can always lend them the money, which is what essentially was being offered by the “mysterious” donor (aka chinese .gov).

    However, America as a whole still doesn’t get the concept of face quite obviously, despite Shanghai’s multiple attempts to help them save it.

    The State department better get its head out of its ass, and take the hand thats being offered, before it gets even more ridiculous.

    Me? I’m just waiting at the sidelines, and watching the train wreck as it happens…

  2. Can’t decide what’s more strange. Seeing your work cited in Youth Daily, or seeing you recommend an editorial from Youth Daily 😉

  3. I shouldn’t be surprised there is so much misunderstanding about the US Expo and the EXPO in general because neither the Chinese Govt or the US State Dept has been very transparent about it. In the case of the State Dept it is because they are by no means in control of the situation, and couldn’t be. Congress tied their hands years ago when they took the US Govt out of funding any part of Expos. You need to focus your criticism on Congress. However, from your previous comments about Ellen E and Ira Kasoff I can see that you don’t understand the way government works. You seem to see conspiracy where there is none. I really think it wasn’t right for you to attack that person that made a comment from a state dept IP address the way you did. Have you never worked in a large organization and had a comment you wanted to make about an issue? Have you never made a grammatical mistake when dashing off an email?

  4. I don’t understand why US companies are not jumping at the chance that for a measly 61 million dollars you get a huge advertisment space for six months and to a billion people. How much do they spend for superbowl half time ad space and to how many people?

  5. “Americans who believe that national ambivalence justifies non-attendance” Very well-put! Somebody back in the US needs to wake up to what a disaster is underway here.

    Sean makes a good point. But as someone in Shanghai I can say that people aren’t giving because nobody trusts the US pavilion group or the State department people pushing them. They’ve told too many lies about deadlines and construction start dates.

  6. For this thing to get off the dime, here’s what the President needs to do, and pronto:

    1. Form an executive task force on the Expo: the President, the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of State, and chairs of the relevant Congressional committees (foreign trade and commerce).

    2. Delegate formal responsibility for the Expo to the Commerce Secretary, as current law provides, with the Secretary of State providing international services. Direct the Foreign Commercial Service to take the lead, as it has successfully for past Expos.

    3. Set rules so that those within the US Government working on the Expo have no personal conflicts of interest. (Such conflicts currently exist.) Enure that the Bush Administration “Expo Action Plan” is kaboshed.

    4. Appoint a Commissioner General, effectively an Ambassador to the Expo, to monitor the U.S.-pavilion process and report regularly to the Commerce Secretary and Congressional committees.

    5. Authorize a new, more qualified US pavilion team capable of developing a high-quality, state-of-the-art, cost-efficient US National Pavilion in the very short time before the Expo opens.

    6. Rebudget the US Pavilion effort. Request Congress to appropriate $10 million in public starter funds and secure a commitment from the new US Pavilion team to raise an additional $10 million in cash contributions and $10 million in contributions in kind (including labor).

    7. Encourage federal and state agencies to collaborate with the new US Pavilion team.

    8. Personally get behind the reformed US Pavilion effort.

    9. Be there for the opening of the US pavilion, together with Secretary of Commerce Locke and Secretary of State Clinton, and leaders of Congress, when the Expo opens on May 1, 2010. Shake hands with the Chinese leaders. Make deals. Have fun. Make America proud.

    Do that and America can be a winner on a global scale.

  7. Only in America could something like this happen….$61 million out of the American economy? Isn’t that like an hour of spending in Iraq? A day’s worth of bloodsucking by Cheney and his Haliburton cohorts? Only Americans would spend 10,000 times as much on enforcing Empires and killing people but not displaying their pride and values. Wait a minute, actually….you already have.

  8. I’m one of the Americans that couldn’t give a damn. To me, the Expo is nothing but a glorified Alliance Francaise or British Council. The US olympic committee is independent of the government, too, and that works fine because people care.

    Couple questions: Which was the last Expo that the US had a country pavillion? How many US companies have their own pavillions?

    (I’m just here via Danwei, so I apologize if these are addressed elsewhere)

  9. Sean, to answer one of your questions, the US had a pavilion at the last Expo in 2005. As to how many companies were involved, I can’t quite remember, but I think their advertising was placed in the last room as people exited the pavilion. I want to say that a telecommunications company and a motor oil company of some sort were visible, but my memory of the whole Expo is very fuzzy. Sorry I can’t give you much more info!

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