The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were a massive sporting event hosted by China for the world; the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is an international reception put on by the world in China. Two events held in the same country, yet the differences are clear: whereas the first drew spectators from around the world, the second has attracted a mostly Chinese audience.
Officially opened on April 30th, Expo 2010 will end 184 consecutive days later on October 30th, making it a much longer event than the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Until September 1st, the World Expo site, a colossal 5.28 sq km, sparkled round the clock. Already, more than 53 million people have visited the Fair. To host a World Fair on this scale and to attract such impressive attendance holds major significance for China and its citizens.
The world comes to China
A message printed on Expo entry tickets invites us to “Discover the world without travelling” and World Expo is indeed more than just a fabulous opportunity for the Chinese to apprehend the culture and techniques of each country: it is also a platform for exchange that puts the Chinese on an equal footing with the people of other nations. For visitors travelling from China’s many regions, World Expo has become a foremost destination. Over the past three months, the number of visitors on odd days peaked at 580,000, with a record-breaking nine-hour wait for the Saudi Arabia Pavilion. Not even temperatures touching 40°C and pouring rain have deterred visitors. So what is it about World Expo that has so captivated the Chinese? Beyond the desire to support their country, and the influence of the media, clearly World Expo has an irresistible lure for home-grown visitors.
World Fairs have a long history. They unleash human creativity, inspire us to take an active role, to combine science and sentiment, and present all manner of new concepts that will further human development, from original points of view to innovative technologies and arts. China presented its silk industry at the 1851 World Fair in London. One hundred and fifty-nine years later, and on home ground, this period in history will remain engraved in the memory of even more Chinese. Generations have changed, and cutting-edge technology, state-of-the-art techniques and modern culture are still the biggest attractions, especially as the Chinese are at the core of 2010 World Expo’s public.
The Shanghai World Expo is about people-centred debates, driven by its central theme of Better City, Better Life, and the concepts that spring from this, such as reduced energy consumption, lowering our carbon footprint and recycling. These various concepts can also be seen in the construction of the pavilions that make World Expo 2010 a must-see for any visitor to China. And yet the main attractions are on the inside, from the world-famous paintings and sculptures in the French Pavilion to the giant babies in the Spanish Pavilion. Technology and culture are becoming increasingly familiar concepts to the Chinese.
An opportunity to reflect on change
On one of my numerous visits to Switzerland this year, I found myself discussing China’s economic development with a friend in La Chaux-de-Fonds. He suggested that the Chinese population’s quality of life had yet to match their new gains in wealth. I have to agree, and am convinced that China’s expansion will imply further transformation. World Expo in Shanghai gives China exactly this kind of investigative terrain. Its theme – Better City, Better Life – is a springboard for serious examination of quality of life. Architecture, transport, household appliances, lighting, waste: World Expo offers examples of real-life solutions to the problems thrown up by urban expansion.
This notion of a better life brings me back to Switzerland. Many Swiss work in towns but live in rural areas, whereas the Chinese continue to pour into cities to live and work. These contrasting realities lead us to reconsider our development models. In the words of Manuel Salchli, director of the Swiss Pavilion: “Better communication between town and country isn’t enough; we must also reconcile their culture and environment. This is the only means to achieve harmonious urbanisation. For this reason, a healthy interaction between town and country is vital. They must develop one alongside the other to provide an acceptable quality of life and economic development.”
According to Dr. Fan Gang, director of the National Economics Research Institute in Beijing, World Expo in Shanghai “is an excellent place to study and draw lessons from other nations’ experience of urban growth. The urbanisation process engenders problems and difficulties in any country, yet the fact is that the hope of a better quality of life encourages men to pursue urban growth. In this light, we can say that World Expo is an opportunity to send a powerful message to others.”