“We are not ready.”

Yesterday I spent 12 hours wandering Day 2 of the Expo’s Soft Opening and – like pretty much anyone who’s been down there in the last three days – I was alarmed by just how unprepared the staff (the volunteer guides only know their immediate vicinity; I checked), the grounds (basic landscaping was still happening in many parts of the grounds), and most of the national pavilions (construction was still in progress throughout the site) were for the onslaught of visitors (500,000 on Sunday!) to come this weekend. Not to put too fine a point on this, but: Shanghai was awarded the Expo on December 3, 2002, providing it roughly 18 months more than Beijing had to prepare for the Olympics. And yet, despite the shorter time frame, Beijing was so on the ball it released “We are ready,” a one-year-countdown theme song on August 8, 2007.

A theme song for Shanghai? Earlier this week Shanghai had to cancel the Expo 2010 theme song when it became embroiled in credible allegations of plagiarism.

Now, to be fair, the Expo is in soft opening mode – meaning, the organizers are supposed to be working out the kinks. But, as someone said to me this evening: “Some of those kinks sound like structural problems.”

As an Expo fan, I certainly hope that’s not the case. And I guess we’ll all know the answer in a week’s time. In any case, below, the Rus pavilion, as photographed (by me) at sunset, last night.

[Addendum 4-23: A quick clarification and addition in response to a comment, below, and a couple of emails. I don’t think that it’s at all surprising that Shanghai is running behind on a project that covers 5 square kilometers, costs billions, and requires management of hundreds of thousands of employees and volunteers. In fact, I think that any country would face similar problems. But that’s not how it was supposed to be. For the last two years – when people in Shanghai discussed Expo, there was an assumption that – because this is Shanghai – things would be different. The conversation (which has occurred dozens of times in my presence alone) often went something like this:

A: Do you think they’ll finish the Expo site on time?

B. Of course! It’s China.

In this case, “it’s China” typically means: due to their surfeit of money, people, and authority, the Chinese authorities would make sure – somehow – that the Expo was completed on-time. Nobody could every say exactly how that triple combo would result in an on-time completion. It was just assumed (an assumption that I shared, by the way). But now, one week out, some of those same people – including Chinese friends who are members of the media, the Party, etc – are confronted with an entirely different reality. Based upon their visits to the site (and mine), it’s becoming uncomfortably clear that some aspects of the Expo site – including human resources – will simply not be ready. And this goes against many assumptions about China’s (and the Party’s) supposedly unparalleled ability to marshal money, power, and people. My sense is that this is making some people very uncomfortable.]

[Addendum 2: In 2008 the Shanghainese looked north, to Beijing’s Olympics, and whispered among themselves and to their foreign friends: “We could do better than those bumpkins.” That sentiment, generated out of the city’s infamous and considerable cosmopolitan vanity, was no secret to its Beijing rivals.  And so, in the last week, I’ve been amused to hear several of my Beijing friends gloating over what might actually be a fairly eloquent, in-progress self-inflicted rebuttal down at the Expo site.]


  1. I’ve never seen a construction project that didn’t come down to a mad rush at the end. And I’ve become much less worried about fears that the host country of a large event will not be able to pull it off. Athens Olympics, South Africa World Cup, etc.

  2. Christopher – Yeah, I was thinking that. I think what’s interesting about this situation is that – for a year now – everyone in Shanghai has been saying something along the lines of “It’s China. They’ll get it done.” That’s a bit different than, say, the Athens Olympics, when everybody said: “It’s Greece. There’s no way they’ll get it done.” In the last few days I’ve spoken to friends and colleagues – several of whom are Party members – who are frankly shocked at the unfinished state of things. Whatever the reality is with finishing up construction at most large events, many people here thought that China was immune to it (due to its ability to throw people, money and authority at large problems). We’re now learning it’s not.

  3. I saw some pics from a colleague who went yesterday and wasn’t happy with the crowds or how they were dealt with. One of the pics she had in particular, with a crush of people at a bar (in the German pavilion I think) looked like it was about to turn nasty. There was one foreign staff member trying to hand out beer, with a dozen angry (from the looks on the faces) Chinese screaming at her and throwing money. Needless to say she looked shell-shocked. Not a security or crowd control person in sight either.

  4. Question i have is who’s going to eat it in Beijing if this thing becomes an embarrassment? Is Xi Jinping on the hook for any of this? Whoever it is better start boning up on administetering animal husbandy Backward Ass Provinces.

  5. one major problem with the whole run up to official opening (as a lo wei who is involved in programming a few pavilions)
    is the insistence of VIP’s to spring surprise visits on pavilions which need to spend time on making their stuff work. On many occasions, we have been told that we can spend a whole day programming and comissioning systems only to be told at the last minute that nothing can be done because someone from beijing is coming to see the pavilion. I know it’s not just the areas I’m working in, this is a big problem everywhere.

    If they’d leave us alone to do our work (and not stop us bringing tools etc in) maybe things would be further along than they are now.

  6. great for someone like me trying to keep up on the Expo from afar (until I get over to check it out at the end of June) to have you covering it. just a stray thought about the Athens comparison mentioned in the comment thread. I was in Athens, en route to an Olympics conference in Olympia, a few months before 08/08/08, and a cab driver told me in effect: journalists in the Western Europe and the U.S. don’t seem able to give either China or Greece a break; when the Athens Games were drawing near, they complained that buildings were going up too slowly, but when the Bird’s Nest was finished ahead of schedule, they began writing stories worrying about whether the structure’s luster would have faded by the time of the Opening Ceremonies.

  7. I’m working at the Expo and red tape has been horrible. It has really been slowing down everything and if things are uncompleted I would, at least, partly blame the Party’s obsession with controlling and regulating. Also, from what we are hearing some pavilions (like the Brazilian one) are pretty far from complete.

  8. I’m so enjoying hearing about the preparations of Expo. I worked at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany and was shocked and worried at how much was undone when I first stepped on site 2 weeks before opening day. Of course, most everything was perfect for Day 1. On the whole, Expo 2000 was a huge flop: considered too expensive, featuring cold, crappy weather throughout the 5 month run & badly advertised, completely lacking hype.

    Wishing Expo 2010 much success, great weather and large patient crowds! Wish I was there.

  9. “A: Do you think they’ll finish the Expo site on time?
    B. Of course! It’s China.”

    Whoever said that has obviously never been on a plane in China in the last 5 years. To the uninformed, everything, EVERYTHING, is late in China. It’s a combination of apathy, and lack of financial incentives for those behind the wheel (metaphorically).

    The guys who really move the needle are the power brokers in Beijing. I’m sure they want this to be a huge success, but don’t ever ever ever count on the enthusiasm of the tired, overworked Chinese construction worker.

  10. I’m working at expo and unfortunately I have to say that it is the biggest mess I’ve ever seen. China has tried so hard to host the biggest and best expo ever. it might be the biggest but it has no chance left of being the best. If you talk to pavilion staff behind the scenes you’ll see that most are already fed up with expo and with China. It’s such a shame as everyone has come here to make this event a success and it is the hosts themselves that have turned it into a flop!

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