End of Expo: Why Expo 2010 Mattered

The personal and professional interests of the foreign media in China have never had much in common with the average Chinese people with whom they cover. Sometimes, this is a good and necessary thing: if the foreign media won’t cover Chinese dissidents, who will? But often, this produces absurd results that distort – for readers and viewers outside of China – what matters to China.

Take, for example, the near obsession that China’s foreign correspondents have with Jia Zhangke, a very good Chinese filmmaker who makes “serious,” socially conscious films that have almost no audience in China, but which win awards abroad. This year, during the Expo, the New Yorker (to choose just one English language publication) devoted thousands of words to Mr. Jia. Fair enough, I suppose, except for the fact that – at the same time Jia Zhangke was appealing to a decidedly small audience of hyper-educated New Yorker writers, readers, and editors, the turnstiles at Expo 2010 – the Shanghai World’s Fair – were rotating at a rate that eclipsed Jia Zhangke’s entire Chinese audience by noon, every day, May to October. If New Yorker readers wanted to know something about why people were rushing through those turnstiles, they’d have to look elsewhere because, aside from a few blog posts, the magazine published nothing on Expo 2010 – the biggest and most expensive event that ever took place in China (and, some argue, anywhere). Of course, the New Yorker, and its terrific China correspondent weren’t along in this choice of coverage – they were joined in the decision by most of the China-based foreign media (and their overseas editors). What a pity.

If you believe the official figures, Expo 2010 was visited by more than 70 million people, many millions of whom waited in long ticket lines, outside of the gates, in the heat of July and August (to be sure, quite a few visitors also received their tickets for free), for the chance to wait in long lines within the Expo grounds. The obvious question is: what was the appeal? The less obvious question is: why didn’t the foreign media probe this question? More precisely, rather than ignore the phenomenon, why didn’t anyone pause to ask what was it about contemporary China that drove so many people to do something that most foreigners – especially foreign reporters who are lock-step disdainful of crowds and mass events enjoyed by Chinese – had no interest in doing?

I’ve been dismayed by the number of reporters and expatriates who’ve ascribed the huge attendance figures to lemming-like Chinese behavior, and free tickets (see recent posts and comments on my blog, for starters). Leaving, for another time, the elite mindset necessary for a foreigner (much less, a foreign reporter) to dismiss the interests of the locals as being mechanical and totally manipulated by the CCP, let’s just assume that rural Chinese aren’t much different than hyper-educated foreign reporters. And what I mean by that, as a foreign reporter who attended the Expo more than fifty times, is this: the folks who attended Expo, either in groups or on their own, were many things (aggressive, enthusiastic, patient), but never once did I sense that they were stupid, or so lacking in other options that they’d willingly spend hours in line, in the heat of August, for something that didn’t interest them – just because they received free tickets. [Below, Chinese visitors to the sublime Iceland pavilion.]

Or let’s put it this way: it’s very easy, I think, to stand atop the Expo Boulevard, look down at the six-hour line outside, say, the Saudi Arabian pavilion, and imagine that you’re look at a bunch of lemmings with free tickets. But is that really the best, much less only, explanation? Or is there something else going on down there? Could it be, just possibly, that all of those people are curious to know something about a country capable of spending (reportedly) well over $100 million on a pavilion, and lacking the opportunity to travel there themselves (unlike most Expo critics in the foreign media), are taking the only route available to them? Six hours, in that sense, may not be such a long time. Alternatively, rather than ascribe deep aspirational meaning to those lines, (or lemming-like behavior), it might be better to take a simpler approach: tens of millions of Chinese went to the Expo to enjoy themselves. They did, told their friends and family, and – as the figures show – attendance built.[ Below, the line for the Saudi pavilion at 8:00 PM, the second to last night of the six-month Expo.]

So why do I think Expo 2010 mattered? Lots of reasons, but for now I’ll focus on a favorite.

Non-Asian foreigners who have lived or traveled in China, outside of the big cities, all share a common experience: at some point, someone is going to want to have their picture taken with you. And, along the way, they’ll likely tell you that you’re the first foreigner that they’ve ever met (even though they’ve been watching foreign faces on television screens for decades). Now, there’s two ways one can take this experience: you can roll your eyes and think ‘what a bunch of hicks,’ or you can accept it graciously and hope that you made a decent impression as a First Foreigner. At Expo, this experience was had by non-Asian staff and volunteers millions of times. According to some of the young, fresh-faced American college students who worked the lines outside of the USA pavilion, they often posed for over 100 photos per daily shift, sometimes more. It wasn’t just the Caucasians, either: a staff member at an Arab pavilion who would normally dress in his country’s traditional garb, told me that he began dressing in jeans and T-shirts because the number of photo requests made it impossible for him to move through the grounds.

James Fallows, my friend and long-time correspondent for the Atlantic, picked up on why this matters in a way that correspondents based here never did. Writing, after his first few hours at the Expo, Fallows noted:

Shanghai Expo of 2010, whose most devoted attendees appear to be small-town and rural Chinese folk, serving the same role the St. Louis World’s Fair did for Midwestern Americans a century ago — giving them a glimpse of what the wide world might look like, since they are not likely ever to see it themselves. Strangely uplifting.

‘Uplifiting’ is an interesting choice of words, and one that I like quite a bit, both because I identify with it, and because most of the foreign media who came into contact with the Expo had the opposite reaction. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose, but I can’t help but conclude that – in the end – if Expo 2010 failed to teach China’s foreign correspondents anything about China, it certainly should have taught the Chinese something very important about the foreign correspondents – and very little of it to their credit.

Addendum: Just got off the phone with a journalist friend who challenged me to give him three stories that he missed at Expo. Fair enough.

But first – as a catty fellow journalist: if a journalist has a multi-billion dollar event in his back yard, one attended by 200+ countries, tens of thousands of foreign staff, visited by hundreds of foreign leaders and bureaucrats, not to mention tens of millions of Chinese, and can’t manage to find a decent story, say, every week or so, then that journalist’s reporting license should be revoked. I mean, seriously.

Second, I must concede that, from a reporter’s perspective, the Expo was a better feature than it was a news story. But that’s what most of the foreign correspondents in China do: they look for small events and blow them up (sometimes absurdly) into bigger events that (supposedly) explain some greater trend in China. For example, in recent weeks, while Expo was hosting 1 million visitors per day, the New York Times decided to run a story on dog ownership in China, comically titled (am I the only one who laughed at this?) “Once banned, dogs reflect China’s rise”– a story on friggin’ Chinese pet ownership that’s been done dozens of times over the years (including, I concede, by me).

This reporter, if he had time to write about dogs as a symbol of China’s rise, surely also had the time to report on these Expo-related incidents and trends, and blown them into “China’s rise” or other trend stories: the fight that broke out (early in the Expo) between Palestinian and Israeli pavilion staff (launch point for nice weekend-y feature on how int’l tensions are reflected at Expo); Expo security’s detention of Omani pavilion staff for wearing sports jerseys with numbers on them sensitive to Chinese bureaucrats (launch point for discussion of tensions between China and Arab countries on Muslim minorities); the numerous corruption episodes involving various national pavilions (don’t get me started); national pavilion concerns (and actions taken) in regard to economic and other types of espionage occurring at Expo (multi-day feature on economic espionage in Asia); the poor relations between many Chinese contractors and the national pavilions (Hello Forbes! Hello Fortune!); the numerous deals sprung, negotiated, and closed in VIP suites, etc etc (where was the WSJ’s VIP-suite correspodent). I could go on all day.

And finally, how about a feature that explores why Chinese people continued coming to the event despite the crowds, the heat, and the bad press? Was there something there – something that the average foreign correspondent didn’t understand or share – that motivated Chinese visitors? Expo 2010 was the biggest, baddest and widest walking China/international relations metaphor that anyone has ever seen. And alas, it’s going to be up to the feature writers, the historians, and novelists to tell us all about it, and why it mattered. The foreign correspondents, and their editors back home, totally missed it.


  1. Expo was a very wide target not only missed by foreign correspondents but by far, far too many foreign residents in Shanghai who perversely stuck to fashionable cynicism and false ennui to beg off going to this singular event right in their own backyard. That does not, however, inhibit their sniping comments about an event they only know secondhand from a very few journalists.

  2. There really was practically no press about the Expo here in the states. World’s Fairs historically have been tremendous, amazing events bringing together…well…the world and showcasing innovation and cooperation. It saddens me that so many people have become so cynical and insular that they can’t open themselves up to the wonder of such a thing. I’ve imagined how cool it would be to go the fair ever since I was a kid and heard about the Knoxville fair in ’82.

    A year ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Shanghai who was there teaching English, and obviously I couldn’t miss hearing about 2010. And seriously, that was the first time I had heard about it. The whole energy of the thing stirred up those dreams of Knoxville all over again, and my friend and I decided to go back (she returned to the states last fall after her gig ended) and visit her friends, and go to the fair.

    And it was so worth it. What a trip. An amazing venue, an amazing amount of people (when you go to Shanghai and people tell you they don’t want to go to the Expo because it’s so crowded, that’s saying something!), and just an impressive thing all around. Something I can tell the kids about someday.

    I wish that everyone could not focus so much on the negative parts of this. It seems like China is always an easy target for that sort of criticism, but let’s have some perspective. Nothing of this magnitude is clean. Olympians take drugs, and Olympic committees raze communities. Everything comes at a price, and corruption is part of the human nature. But in the end, the organizers pulled it off.

    I think Mr. Fallows’ comparison to St. Louis is spot-on. A billion people were only a train ride away from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and learn about people and places they had only seen on tv or read about in books. I flew 9000 miles for that same opportunity. How fortunate for all 70 million of us.

    Good job, China. I, for one, think your World’s Fair was amazing, and I’m sad that after tomorrow I’ll never be able to walk down those same boulevards and gaze upon the stunning architecture, gorgeous scenery and friendly crowds.

  3. For me as a visitor (4 visits, mostly for events) and experienced international traveler, the Expo sucked. I also thought the 2000 Expo in Hannover, Germany sucked (the architecture was less impressive and the U.S. didn’t even bother to participate). The Expo concept is irrelevant to many international travelers (more on this later).

    But the Expo was not about me. It was for the ~98% of Chinese who have never left China, and many of whom will never have the opportunity. That’s why I think China is one of the places where the Expo still works well (good luck to 2015 Milan, but I think Europe is a terrible place to hold an Expo, far too many have seen the ‘real’ deal of foreign nations). But I’m glad that hunger to discover the world exists here in China as strongly as anywhere else. Hopefully visitors learned new things about new countries, though I fear that much of the content in the pavilions was of mediocre quality at best. Still, I think many truly enjoyed it.

    On the cynical side, the number of visitors I saw who waited in line for hours and then ran through the actual pavilion just to collect the stamps, does lead me to question ‘lemming-like behavior’ and whether they were just showing off for friends back home. But perhaps that reflects more upon the poor content of many of the pavilions than it does the visitors.

    The World Fair (Expo) is a confusing and poorly conceived event (how many people remember 2008 Zaragoza, 2005 Aichi, or even 2000 Hannover, the last ‘major’ Expo? –yes, there are ‘major’ and ‘minor’ Expos, don’t ask). The Expo asks government bureaucrats to design Disneyland, around some weak theme, that most pavilions ignore anyway — ‘Better City, Better Life’? In the end, I’d say leave Disneyland to the pros, and it should arrive in Shanghai around 2013. I bet it’ll be received at least as well as the Expo and probably offer far more bang for the buck, for Chinese and foreigners alike. So my problem is with the Expo concept itself, rather than Shanghai’s execution, which was world-class.

    I’m extremely fortunate, even spoiled, to have had the opportunity to travel to around the world, which rather ruins the Expo for me. The countries aren’t exotic or magical, as they likely are to other less-traveled visitors. There’s very little in life that I’d wait in line for more than an hour for. I enjoyed the architecture and was impressed by the inside of the UK’s seed cathedral, but that was about it–most other attractions were lame and way too crowded, with overpriced food and drink. And I think that’s the viewpoint from which many foreign correspondents approached it. But that’s not the story for the overwhelming majority of Chinese.

    Regarding foreign press, Expo disinterest is not limited to China. In fact, I think Shanghai’s Expo received far more press than previous Expos, as it should have. Still, I agree with Adam that there were many stories and angles that the foreign press missed here–certainly a far better tie-in than ‘dog ownership’!

  4. got an email today from a friend, she has gone there more that 20 times, and the last ten days straight. big emotional feelings that it is ending.

    as an aside, i am learning to not read almost all western journalism writing about china, at least without a bucket of salt near at hand.

  5. I went one day and wasn’t that impressed other than the scale and massive crowds. I have to admit that I didn’t wait In line for a single pavilion other than the quick moving axis of evil pavilions. Part of the reason is that I had no idea what would await at the end of the multi hour lines, so maybe your point about better coverage is a fair one.

    I do wonder why they held this event during the hottest part of the year, adding to the unpleasantness.

  6. I am so with you Adam. I don’t know if the Expo just wasn’t cool enough for folks, which means I would be admitting much uncoolness, but we had an enjoyable time, even with and in the lines. I read more about the Expo from blogs and twitter(!!!!!) than more conventional media.

  7. I think that if the pavillions were more more interactive, then the raison d’etre for so many would not be the collection of stamps.

  8. @Kai Lukoff (my evil alter ego):

    The passport stamps are like Achievements in video games (and many social games, which I think you’re familiar with). If we can understand the mentality behind that, we can probably understand why many Chinese people just had to collect the stamps. Hell, we can go on and on about McDonald’s Monopoly promotions and Chevron toy cars while we’re at it. Showing off, to family and friends back home? Sure. But I’m not sure if that’s “lemming-like behavior” without making an unfair value judgement of any compulsion to “collect”.


    Sending you an email privately.

  9. Well, I know that the New York Times sends reporters to China who don’t even speak Chinese. And this appears to be true of many news outlets (although not the New Yorker). Perhaps it’s the internal hiring process — China has now become a plum assignment that requires seniority to obtain. Or, worse, perhaps they actually believe that sending a Chinese-speaker would somehow compromise their reputation for critical reporting.

    Either way, they just end up looking clueless. Like that German TV station that heard about the record traffic jam on the national highway leading to Beijing — and then promptly drove onto the (tolled) expressway to look for it. Hello! If there’s a traffic jam on US Route 1, I don’t send my camera crew over to the New Jersey Turnpike!

    Meanwhile, Chinese programs at Western universities are overflowing with students …

  10. Thank you for this post.

    Today’s South China Morning Post had a beautiful personal essay entitled “Tickets to the world”.

    Hsin-yi Cohen wrote about her trip to the Shanghai expo with her mother Chin-chu, who had gone to the Osaka Expo in 1970, an event that “changed her life”.

    Her mother had been “a wide-eyed, 20-year old woman from a rural village in southern Taiwan,…chosen to represent the island….as one of four young women selected to host the handicrafts and jewellery section.”

    “It was such a big adventure,” her mother said. “In those days, leaving your country and going overseas was a really big thing. Only diplomats or big businessmen or people from rich families had the chance to go abroad.”

    “I had never seen hot water come out of a tap before.”

    “Clad in matching silk qipaos, her mother’s team was popular with visitors, many of whom asked for autographs and photos.”

    Her mother said “We worked really hard – 12 hours every day – and we had one day off a week. I often used that time to go and see the other pavilions. I never knew the world had so many countries. I saw the moon rock at the U.S. pavilion – everybody was so excited about that. But my biggest experience was tasting butter for the first time at the French pavilion. It was fragrant and so amazing – I will never forget that first taste.”

    Cohen wrote that “the Osaka Expo broadened my mother’s horizons. She has since travelled and lived in more than a dozen countries across Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.”

    Cohen concluded with this: “Forty years is a long time….but the Expo spirit remains unchanged. The same ideals and dreams that inspired my mother in Osaka all those years ago will have inspired the millions who visited Shanghai. “She is just like me,” my mother said, smiling as she watched a girl greeting visitors at the entrance to the Taiwan pavillion. “She is happy and proud to share her home with the world.”

    http://www.scmp.com/portal/site/SCMP/menuitem.2af62ecb329d3d7733492d9253a0a0a0/?vgnextoid=d1fa08d5bb7fb210VgnVCM100000360a0a0aRCRD&ss=Travel&s=Life (Registration required)


    70 million people – mostly Chinese, but a good number of foreigners too – will now have stories to tell about their experience with the Expo.

    The cumulative experiences for the thousands of people (Chinese and others) who conceived, bid for, organized, managed, designed, financed, negotiated, worked on and volunteered for the Expo, and the 70 million who attended, and now who are reflecting on and will tell others about their experiences – these are experiences of intangible and immeasurable value which will influence their futures in ways that we don’t yet know about, as lessons learned, skills gained, relationships formed and perspectives broadened, will be transferred to other endeavors.

  11. Well, as another long time expat in Shanghai, I have another perspective – there is BIG lack of communication – East/West
    as you have, sort of, pointed out BUT both have a bit of reluctance to improve the connections for a lot of reasons
    most important – fear of whatever – ignorance – Chinese
    government not allowing / Western governments not allowing.

    Keep up the Good work

  12. I agree with your sentiment about foreign reporters trying to make others understand a China they hardly know themselves. Some of the articles and headlines make me cringe, especially blanket accusations of China’s evil government which has done more for the people of this country and this generation than any other in its dynastic history, thank you very much.

    However, I have to agree with those who hated the expo. I thought it sucked as well. Most of the pavilions had nothing inside of note and barely any of them even bothered to tie it in with the supposed “green” theme. In the age of the internet, it just doesn’t cut it anymore to showcase videos (no matter how large the screen) of your home country. We can all watch it from the comfort of our own homes, less the 3-6 hour long wait where the pushing, shoving and queue cutting can be left to those who relish it.

  13. Sorry Adam, but no. It was an impressive spectacle for its scale, but so would be any hole in the ground that big that had so much money poured into it. There was no *there* there, no whimsy or humanity to provide an interesting angle. Anything with hope of being cool or interesting or engaging came was overwhelmed with heavy bludgeoning of pomp and self-importance and blandifying officialdom.

    I went several times and enjoyed myself, and I certainly missed a lot of things that sounded interesting but were just too much trouble. That sort of sums up the entire Expo: whether as an individual experience or an overall event, it was just not a tenth cool enough to justify all of the trouble.

    It was such a big black hole that of course it sucked a lot of people in. And to generalize broadly, the Chinese people by necessity have a make-lemonade sort of attitude: if they spend that much time and money going to something, they will enjoy themselves even if it sucks. Good on them. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

    Of the scores of Chinese friends, acquaintances and random people I have asked about the Expo, mostly but not exclusively Shanghainese, only one actually thought it was cool. He is an engineer, and was really excited by the tech displays. It is a theme park without rides, a trade fair with mobs of disgruntled people for decoration.

    Most Shanghainese I know felt the Expo was a colonization of or tumor upon the city, an external thing that has little to do with them but that was thrust upon them and they had to deal with it – for many, many years. This city, and this country, are vastly more interesting than anything at the Expo. Any given day over the past six months, there are a million things happening in Shanghai outside of the Expo, out here in the real world, that are a million times more interesting than anything happening at the Expo.

    I’m with you on the critique of the Western press and what editors often want in terms of clichéd China copy, but if anything the Expo got more coverage than it merited, often clichéd. I of course have enjoyed your coverage, Adam, because you went deep and wrote more than the standard “Ooh China has an Expo!” and “Ooh lots of Chinese people!” articles. I’m looking forward to your return to scrap.

  14. Lisa –

    I gotta introduce my Shanghainese friends to your Shanghainese friends. A summit is in order. Or, at least, a lunch. See you soon, I hope. And brace yourself for an imminent storm surge of scrap blogging.

  15. I’m going to plead guilty to being one of those foreign expats in Shanghai who didn’t go. But here’s the thing: in the last six months, I have met one, and exactly one, Chinese citizen who has responded to queries on the expo with anything other than “mei you yisi”. This includes dozens of responses stretching from cab drivers in Shanghai to city officials in Guangxi.

    In fact, that official gave me the best summary of the event, and riposte to this post, that I heard: “if you don’t visit Expo, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life; if you do, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life”.

    The Expo became something that people just _had to do_, which isn’t to make a lemming accusation, just as the fact that nearly almost all my friends from the US spend one Sunday a year watching the most mind-numbingly boring “spectacle” on the planet just because that’s what’s done. I don’t watch the Superbowl either, and maybe the best of the best reporters can use the Superbowl to reveal anything but cliches about Americans, but the odds are long so I’m not going to read any news stories about the Superbowl either.

    There’s also the neatly masked fact that the vast majority of pavilions, by the reports I’ve heard, had nothing to do with the countries they were ‘representing’. The Saudi pavilion had an Imax. I struggle to understand what this is communicating to a rural Chinese citizen about the country of, on the one hand, the glories of Mecca and Medina, and, on the other, one of the most barbaric regimes on the planet (and yes, I’ve spent time in Saudi, I don’t use ‘barbaric’ without it being deserved, and no, most foreigners can’t actually go). About as much as waitresses in funny uniforms serving beer say about the Czech Republic. And don’t get me started about what I’ve seen on TV of the African pavilions (a post-colonialist critic’s field day if ever there was one) …

    So on the one hand you’re lambasting foreign reporters for their failure to look beyond their usual cliches (a criticism with which I agree). But then you’re doing so by praising an event that has fed dozens of such cliches to Chinese citizens, at enormous cost, not least in those citizens’ time.

  16. Luke: “I saw some Expo footage on TV and heard from some friends that it sucks, so I guess it sucks.” Luke could you tell me anything more about the Czech pavilion beyond what was in the restaurant? Luke did you know that there was an entirely separate Medina pavilion focused on the hajj? Luke, did you bother to ask WHO designed the Africa pavilion? I worked for a while just across from it in another pavilion and I think it was one of the better ones for educating visitors. Who @#$% cares what a post-colonialist’s critic would say? Are you trying to make a joke? Only on the web can people say I don’t know what I’m talking about but here’s my strong opinion.

  17. Adam has a more objective view of the whole picture. Many rural Chinese may never have any chance to visit foreign countries in their life, so to wait hours in line is totally worth it. Lisa’s Shanghaiese friends must be those “worldly” ones that are lucky enough to travel. These elite Chinese most likely share the same opinions with many speakers here: the Expo sucks!
    I also think the Expo has not much to offer to me as I’ve seen much of the world, but I do think the Expo is great because it sets the stage for the citizens of the world to dance together in harmony. And I think it’s fantastic for regular Chinese to see the world at one spot, although it may not be a perfect representation of the world, but who cares.
    As a Shanghai resident, I’ve also seen the tremendous efforts the government put into making it a successful show, and the great impacts it has brought upon the city: broadened streets, improved transportation system, nicer landscaping, more tourism business, more polite and happier people, better social order, less pollution, bluer sky… It’s indeed “better city, better life”. I wish the Expo could have run for a whole year!

  18. Goodness!

    Here is my thought on the Expo, RENAO!

    Chinese people love to sit around the dinner table with friends, classmates, well anyone actually, and exchange opinions and stories.

    The Expo was a great place to collect stories for future dinner table chats. All extreme things either good or bad make fun stories, with the bad being best.

    I have never laughed as hard as I did when a Chinese friend told our dinner table about his horrible day in the Expo! That friend owes a lot to the expo for a story he can tell for years and which he obviously will enjoy telling for a long time to come.

    I think the friends above are perhaps missing a very important part of the Chinese cultural experience (which they will be angry for me saying because they will get defensive, but..) which is to amuse with, and be amused by, stories of happenings around you.

    For the ones who say, my Chinese friends thought it was lame or bad, I feel sorry for them. Expo should inspire great table talk. I think either the people above do not speak Chinese, or they have very un-entertaining friends. To get a lot from a taxi driver about the expo experience is barking up the wrong tree.

    I have felt the level of Renao at table talk go up exponentially (cough!) during the past 6 months.

    What fun!

  19. If you’re going to argue that the Expo is teaching people about the world you have to argue about what people learned not who designed the pavilion or what kind of tokenism was put next to the big Imax theatre. I suppose if any of the Chinese citizens I asked about the Saudi pavilion had mentioned the Hajj you might have a point (or, say, the effective enslavement of women in Saudi). They didn’t.

    As for the Africa pavilion, what I saw was the footage on the news channels, which was generally men dancing in animal costumes. I am from South Africa, so nearly every time I meet someone new here we have a conversation about Africa. Over the six months of the expo, with all those 70 million people, did those conversations evince the slightest increase in knowledge? Nope, none.

    I haven’t seen any surveys definitively proving the educational impact of the event one way or the other, and I highly doubt there will ever be such a survey, but I am going on the evidence of effect that I have.

    The counter-argument seems to be basically “I was there and people had good intentions and lots of people came so it must have been educational”. Only on the web can people get away with such bad reasoning.

    Last, for those saying asking taxi drivers is barking up the wrong tree: I thought the point of this post was that everyone’s overlooking the ordinary person’s viewpoint. Besides which, I did say I’d asked dozens of people, not just taxi drivers. It was, after all, one of the main topics of conversation in the last six months.

    And, for the record, in contrast to the claims that it’s “worldly Chinese” who look down on the Expo while ordinary people loved it: the only person who did tell me they liked it was a mid-20s fluent English speaker working in a multi-national company in Hangzhou.

  20. Luke – One comment, okay. And two would be fine, too – if you’d actually gone to the event. But you didn’t, and your voice is being drowned out here by people who went and liked it (and not a taxi driver among them) – and a few who went and didn’t. I don’t want to be a jerk about this – I appreciate your comments, they’re well written and thoughtful – but I’d prefer to keep this discussion to people who went through the trouble to have – for better or worse – first-hand experience of the Expo.

  21. As a native New Yorker, I recognize all too well the attitude of the Shanghainese. Like the Shanghai natives, we’re too self-absorbed to have any interest towards national or international events.

    We already think we live in the center of the world. Any event that brings in more visitors just means that “our city” gets taken over by outsiders, and we don’t like that.

    So we disdainfully ignore landmarks like the United Nations Headquarters, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Ground Zero or any of a couple of dozen landmarks that tourists come from thousands of miles to see. We roll our eyes and sigh as we wend our way through the busloads of overweight freckled tourists from nowhere USA spilling out in lumpen masses on the sidewalk. We bitch when the UN General Assembly is in session and you can’t get parking because all the diplomats park illegally, or some head of state is passing through and streets get closed off and driving is a nightmare. So you won’t hear one positive thing about it from a native. We are not impressed. New Years Eve in Times Square to watch the ball drop? Never been, never will. It’s for tourists.

    Our view of the world is not much changed from this famous 1976 cartoon:

    If any politician proposed a world expo in New York City s/he’d would be booted out of office in a second. So asking a Shanghainese for his or her reaction to the expo would probably engender the same kind of reaction from a New Yorker towards a similar event there.

    I on the other hand really wanted to go to the Shanghai expo but commitments kept me away. But I know Hong Kong expats who did make the trip and they enjoyed it.

  22. “Only on the web can people say I don’t know what I’m talking about but here’s my strong opinion,” as being shown again and again here.

  23. Quote: “As a Shanghai resident, I’ve also seen the tremendous efforts the government put into making it a successful show, and the great impacts it has brought upon the city: broadened streets, improved transportation system, nicer landscaping, more tourism business, more polite and happier people, better social order, less pollution, bluer sky”

    there was a very long article in yesterday’s SCMP (sorry can’t link) that would refute much of that, certainly from a sustainability perspective, which after all is at the heart of Better City, Better Life

  24. I’m a long-time Shanghai resident (American), and attended the Expo.

    I had low expectations, but I sure wasn’t going to miss a spectacle of that scale unfolding right in the city where I live. How could I *not* attend a World Expo when all I had to do to get there was take a short subway ride!

    I did not expect it to be very fun or interesting. And for the most part, it wasn’t – for me. But I also recognized that it was not really intended for people like me. It was intended for Mr. and Mrs. Average Zhou from Middletown, China. And from what I saw, the Zhous had a great time (and took lots and lots of photos).

    I attended the Expo with two young Chinese friends from a farm village in Anhui. For one of them, it was her very first day in The Big City! They enjoyed the Expo so much that, after I tired and left for home, they stayed for more.

    The most interesting angle for me was to observe the masses of Chinese visitors. What surprised me most was how well-behaved people were. Despite the stress of the lines and crowds, I saw no fighting or arguing, very little littering, and almost no queue jumping – ! In general, people seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.

    Over the last six months I have spoken about the Expo with many Chinese who live, work or study in Shanghai. The majority of the responses I got spoke positively about their Expo experiences. One guy I know went five times.

    So all in all, I give high marks and a “Bravo!” to both the gov’t organizers and the masses of visitors. From my experiences, the Expo appeared to be major success.

  25. Traveling from Indiana to Shanghai resulted in a wonderful experience at the Expo. Somewhat familiar with Chinese culture, I found the Expo a quasi-mirror of Time’s Square. Multicultural, crowded, stimulating and pulsating, Time’s Square exhibits a palpable mixture of pride and curiosity for all Americans who visit, and a surreal window on culture for foreigners. Expo 2010 provided the same in Shanghai. Me thinks some of the strident naysayers have negative responses about many ideas that are not theirs. Given the time, I would have returned to Expo 2010 a dozen times or more. A truly memorable experience.

  26. I’m afraid I fall in the camp of people that thought the Expo to be a non-event. The main idea that I take issue with is the nebulous idea that the Expo was in someway good for business, and that it was a place where big deals were made.

    I think that if were true, we would probably know about it. I.e. there would be plenty of annoucements made (press releases are full of irrelevant bumph, and if a deal was made in the Expo, the issuer of the release would be bound to mention the Expo backdrop).

    But even if deals were made at the Expo, one has to ask whether they would have failed to go ahead if the Expo hadn’t happened, which would suggest a causal link between the event and business deals. I can’t see any serious business person, either Chinese or foreign, having their commercial decisions affected because they are in the American Pavilion, for example, than say in a meeting room at the Shangri-La.

    And to be honest, I think that if the Chinese government did want to promote business, it could have just used 10% of the Expo budget to pay for a series of mega-junkets for thousands of business people both in China and abroad, specifically with that purpose.

  27. It’s too bad that the majority of Shanghai foreigners showed such little interest in the expo. Well, that is until they found out that employees turned the pavilions into nightclubs after hours.

    People who resented the expo from the beginning began to attend the monumental party we were throwing. These Parties were pretty impressive. We stopped hitting the town and usually visited the latest pavparty after work. The parties usually had alot free booze and cute foreigners. Unfortunately for the shanghai foreigners, the employees had all built relationships by the time outsiders found out about our parties so they got a pretty lukewarm reception.

  28. I’m a half-worldly Chinese. I’ve been. From the opinions I collected around me, almost everybody is positive about the event. Most peopple agree that the French and the Italian pavilions were the most impressive, as there are culture and stuff to see. The British one is a bit “disappointing”, and the US one is “a big brainwashing factory”.

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