Shanghai's 2010 Expo: the 'Economic Olympics'

World Expos have been a snooze in the West for decades. But China's first one ever next year will be a wake-up call.

Hosting a world expo was once a big deal. From London in 1851 to Chicago in 1893, these fairs put cities at the center of the world stage, just as Olympics and world cups do today. But today, within the West, the expo is the Rodney Dangerfield of major events.

One reason they "don't get no respect" is that host cities – not to knock Knoxville, Tenn. – haven't always been top-tier ones in recent decades. So it's not surprising that the 2010 expo hasn't gotten much attention in the West. That's too bad, because this one, in Shanghai, is unusually ambitious.

Obviously, it won't match the Beijing Games as a symbol of China's rising importance. But just as the Olympic opening ceremonies gave the world a glitzy tour of China's past, the expo will offer an important glimpse into its future.

Five story lines are emerging:

1. Shanghai: perfectly cast

Since the days of London's Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, world's fairs have provided visitors with two things. First, a global perspective via displays of goods from around the world. Second, a taste of the future via displays of new inventions and state-of-the-art machines and structures (Gustave Eiffel built his famous tower for a Paris exposition). As a former and now restored global metropolis, Shanghai has a distinctly cosmopolitan setting replete with futuristic objects, such as its first-in-the-world, ultra-high-speed magnetic levitation train.

2. The expo's urban impact

The city has expanded enormously in recent years. Much of the action is centered in formerly undeveloped Pudong (East Shanghai), which is now home to some of the world's tallest buildings. The national pavilions that will be the heart of the expo will be located on the same side of river as those skyscrapers, but there have been important expo-related developments across the water in Puxi (West Shanghai), also. Puxi is famous for "The Bund," its riverfront lined with elegant neoclassical structures. The expo may finally link the often separate worlds of Puxi and Pudong. Indeed, its theme is "Better City, Better Life." It even features an "urban best practices area."

3. US pavilion uncertainty

National pavilions are like student exhibits at a science fair. At the expo, they say a lot about a country's economic prowess. China's towering pavilion certainly makes a statement. More than 200 countries and groups have one – but the US may be a no-show. The State Department won't fund a pavilion; it hasn't for any recent expo. A private group is cleared to host one, but it will be hard to raise funds in this recession. America's absence would be too bad – especially given how much our first fairs meant to some US cities.

4. Ties to the Beijing Olympics

The cutesy "Fuwa" Olympic mascots have their companion in "Haibao," the expo's Gumby-like symbol. Haibao's lead designer explained that the character's blueness "symbolizes many things: the earth, dreams, the oceans, life, future, and technology." Shanghai 2010 is being touted as an "Economic Olympics." And there's an expo educational drive going on that mirrors, on a more local scale, the Olympic one of a few years back. So schoolchildren in Shanghai are learning that one sign of America's rise to global power in the late 1800s was that it became the first non-European country to host world's fairs, and one sign of China's lowly status was that it was viewed as too backward to hold such events.

5. The Olympic-expo combo

China's use of back-to-back mega-events calls to mind what regional rival Japan did successfully a few decades ago amid its economic ascent. Japan's first Olympics (Tokyo in 1964) and its first world's fair (Osaka in 1970) imprinted a new image of the nation as a thoroughly modern country, light years removed from the exotic land whose pavilions at old fairs were, like China's, showcases for quaint objects, not state-of-the-art technologies. This is just the sort of two-part rebranding move that China's leaders began in Beijing last August and hope to carry forward in Shanghai a year from now.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; cofounder of the "China Beat" blog, and the author of "Global Shanghai, 1850-2010."

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