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As Shanghai Expo opens, construction workers still pounding nails and paving plazas

The Shanghai Expo – the largest World's Fair ever – opens this weekend. While many countries will have their pavilions ready, others have struggled because of Chinese insistence on using approved contractors – and the inexperience of outside managers in working with Chinese builders.

By Staff Writer / April 30, 2010

Performers celebrate as the opening of the Shanghai Expo is officially declared Friday in China.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP


Shanghai, China

A day before China's Shanghai World Expo was due to open its gate to an estimated 700,000 visitors on Saturday, construction workers were still feverishly hammering, welding, painting, and paving against a seemingly impossible deadline.

Many were putting the finishing touches to national pavilions almost ready to receive the public. Others, though, were clearly too far behind schedule to make opening on Saturday a realistic prospect. The United States appeared ready – but the Indonesians looked as if they were struggling. The former Yugolsav republic of Macedonia did not even have its name sign up.

That so much remained to be done on the eve of the Expo, eight years after Shanghai was given the right to host it, was apparently the result of a mixture of factors. They ranged from the sheer scale of the enterprise – the largest World’s Fair ever held – to heavyhanded interference by the Chinese authorities, according to foreigners participating in the show and local analysts.

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IN PICTURES: Shanghai World Expo 2010

At bottom, complained the manager of one pavilion who asked not to be identified, was the Chinese organizers’ insistence that only approved contractors on a city government list would be allowed to work on the site.

“They were irresponsible,” he charged, wiping his face clean of construction dust blowing in the wind from a nearby pavilion – still a shell whose walls had yet to be plastered. “The Chinese contractors took on too much work and they could not finish it on time.”

Struggles with contractors

At the same time, he and others involved in the Expo complained, some of the contractors used their privileged position to demand more money if they were to continue work. “This was a one month job,” he said. “But between the fights day and night with the contractors and the negotiations, it has taken four times as long.”

Some of the problems appear to have arisen because outsiders brought in to manage the construction of national pavilions are unaccustomed to dealing with Chinese builders, who have a reputation for cutting corners and requiring close oversight.

“A lot of the pavilions brought in people with no experience of working with Chinese contractors,” points out Adam Minter, an American journalist and blogger here who has followed preparations for the Expo closely. “That led to all kinds of problems and delays.”

“You need someone who knows how to work the system or you are working against the system,” said the events manager of one European pavilion.

Compounding such problems, said several foreigners planning their nations’ Expo activities, have been frustrating customs delays and unannounced changes in security measures that have repeatedly blocked workers and construction materials at the gates.

“There have been poor communications between the Expo organizers and pavilion directors,” complains the European official. “That has held things up.”