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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.

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How will tourists rate US pavilion?

The US pavilion appeared ready to receive visitors, despite having been plagued by problems until recently. It remains to be seen, though, what the 70 million tourists expected at the Expo over the next six months will make of the American exhibit, which comprises three video shows and a collection of kiosks promoting the wares of the US companies that sponsored the pavilion.

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A lack of such commercial sponsors cast doubts on US participation in the Shanghai Expo until as late as last summer. US legislation means that no government money may be used to fund Expo pavilions.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, however, after Chinese officials had made it plain to her how displeased they would be by an American no-show, personally contacted major US corporations to rally their financial support and named Jose Villareal, a San Antonio lawyer who had earlier raised money for the Clintons’ political campaigns, to be Commissioner of the US pavilion. The $61 million needed to build and run the pavilion was eventually forthcoming.

Such behind-the-scenes maneuvers are of little concern to average Shanghai residents, who are more likely to note the way in which their city has been repainted and filled with flowers and – more lastingly – equipped with 10 new subway lines in the past five years. This has given the city the second-largest subway network in the world, after London.

Once known as “The Pearl of the Orient,” Shanghai was a rich and cosmopolitan trade hub in the 1920s and 1930s, before war with Japan, the civil war, and then the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 led to an exodus of the city’s financial and industrial entrepreneurs and killed its prosperity.

Only with the economic reforms, which took root in Shanghai 20 years ago, has the city begun to reclaim its international status; the city fathers speak confidently today of their ambition to replace Hong Kong one day as Asia’s premier financial center.

“Now there is hope for the future,” says Li Tiangang, a historian of Shanghai at Fudan University here. “But Shanghai people still need to get used to dealing with new lifestyles and new technologies and with competition. That will happen gradually, and the Expo will help.”

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On eve of Shanghai Expo 2010, China finds 'soft power' an elusive goal
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