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Expo 2010 Shanghai: Searching for Meaning

Part II of a Three-Part Series on Expo and the Future of Shanghai

I’ve just spent five weeks at Expo 2010 Shanghai, the greatest gathering of countries, cities and organizations in world’s fair history at the very moment when China has become the second-largest economic power on earth. This was no vacation. China’s leaders asked me to produce, write and present for China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster, a five-episode miniseries giving my personal take on Expo.

On its surface, Expo is about dazzling technologies, dynamic design, and cultural diversity. But what lies beneath? I decided to search for meaning in Expo—implications for world economics, business, finance and politics.

Expo’s theme is “Better City, Better Life.” More people are living in cities, particularly in the developing world. But most cities make life worse. How can cities make life better? That’s the idea.

Better City, Better Life

Of Expo’s theme, Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng, the metropolis’s top leader, told me: “Two hundred years ago, the urban population of the entire world accounted for only about two percent,” he said. “Now it is more than half.” The key global issues facing humankind are: “How to make the city more habitable? How to reduce the harm that city life does to the environment?”

Human history is entering a critical phase. Across the globe, as more and more people swell our cities, catastrophe looms—overcrowding, pollution, unsustainable development, global warming. Humanity’s hope lies in rethinking our urban future. Not only new technologies, but also new respect for the community of nations and for appreciating cultural diversity.

Thus Expo has two goals:Unify the human family and prevent environmental disaster. This I discovered in Expo’s vast Theme Pavilion, whose solar-panel roof, at 30,000 square meters, is the largest of any building in theworld.The cavernous spaces house two monumental and meaningful installations of art. “Urbania” presents diverse families around the world living their daily lives and a room of breathtaking bookshelves as high as a four-story building.

All human beings aspire to a good life, to seek for their children more than they have for themselves. But if everyone on earth were to live like, say, Americans,we would soon exhaust our fossil fuels and heat and pollute our planet into oblivion. That’s the dark vision of “Urban Planet,” also in Expo’s Theme Pavilion, where the “Road of Crisis” presents the horrors of pollution and resource depletion, assaulting visitors viscerally with powerful visual effects.

The largest increases in pollution are coming from developing nations, particularly China and India. But by what right can we, the developed nations, limit the standard of living of those in developing nations? By what decree should we enjoy 10 times or more the GDP per capita of others, and freeze growth so as to make such severe inequality permanent? That would be monumentally unfair and undermine world stability and peace.

The only answer is innovation: low carbon technologies. Expo’s “Urban Best Practices Area,” which showcases how cities are devising new ways to save energy, features pavilions by Hamburg (highest energy standards in a passive structure by using a tree-like airflow system),Madrid (“Air Tree,” cooling urban spaces without air conditioning), London’s ZED house (human-friendly “Zero Energy Development” living, designed by iconoclastic architect Bill Dunster) and Shanghai Eco-House (where three generations live efficiently with minimm energy consumption).

Here, then, is one deep meaning of this Expo: Rethinking how we should live, and how we can live. It is the wise and adventurous CEO who sees transitions and seeks opportunities.

The World Comes to China

Why have all nations of Earth assembled themselves so seriously at this Expo in Shanghai, some paying $50 million or more? Every country here is reaching out to the Chinese people. You see it in the signs and symbols, such as maps with large colorful arcs drawn between each country and China. It’s polite to honor the host country, but at Expo 2010, efforts to connect with China seem more pointed.

England, too, seeks favor with China, but the British have historical baggage to carry: unpleasant memories of empire—Opium Wars, invasions, concessions, Hong Kong—and longstanding stereotypes of staid status quo to break. The U.K. pavilion is a creative paragon of striking simplicity. Externally it looks like an electric dandelion with 60,000 slender transparent rods that extend from the smallish structure, quiver in the breeze and glow magically at night. Thematically, there are just two ideas:maps showing only the green areas of U.K. cities, and a seed bank of the world (each of those rods ends in a casing of seeds).

The Japanese Pavilion harnesses the power of nature. Vertical hollows bring in sunlight, use stored rainwater, and circulate air naturally. In a gentle bow to the tortuous history between China and Japan, Japan pays its respects to China for Japan’s cultural development, which was stimulated, particularly in the 7th and 8th centuries, by contact with China’s Tang Dynasty.

The huge African pavilion raises the question: How did the nations of Africa, many relatively poor, pay the freight? Answer:The cost of designing and building these expensive sub-pavilions for all 42 African countries—$100 million—was funded by China.

China has long had an interest in Africa. In decades past, a revolutionary China sought leadership of the so called Third World. Now a market-driven China needs resources that Africa has in abundance. But China also knows what it means to be poor and to be ignored by the major powers. (China also sought to be sensitive, paying the bills but taking care not to control the content.)

The Saudi Arabian pavilion, shaped like a moon boat and surrounded by deserts and seas like Saudi Arabia itself, is Expo’s most expensive pavilion. It epitomizes the understated grandeur produced when contemporary design energizes traditional values. Inside are spirals of elegant art, culminating in an immersive visual experience within the world’s largest cinema screen.

Given China’s continuing growth, KYODO VIA AP IMAGES A 21-foot robot baby that can move its eyes and head, blink and breathe greets Expo visitors at the Spanish pavilion. 22 www.chiefexecutive.net July/August 2010 particularly after the financial crisis, relations between Saudi Arabia and China take on special significance, symbolized in the pavilion by Saudi and Chinese trees growing together. Economically linked by energy, and mutually committed to stability, Saudi Arabia and China help shape the New World Order.

The Chinese people are proud that China has re-emerged as a great power. But foreigners are indeed conflicted: They’re mesmerized by China’s markets, yet worried by China’s motives. (Walking Expo before it opened, I saw a red banner that said: “Get Close to Oriental Civilization, Show the World the Future.”Gracious Invitation?Or veiled threat?)

Most Chinese are baffled that their country is feared, noting that China has always been the attacked, never the attacker; always the occupied, never the occupier. For a foreigner to counter by mentioning Tibet or the Muslim areas only provokes anger.

China Goes to the World

China’s story is a tale of spectacular economic transformation and rich cultural tradition. It is also a catalog of severe problems: profound disparities between social sectors (urban vs. rural, coastal vs. inland), devastating pollution, unsustainable development, shifting mores, human rights and the need for continuing political reform.To foreigners, China is a huge, homogeneous mass, all the same. To the Chinese,China is a cauldron of complexity, evidenced by the roughly 30 provincial sub-pavilions.

Although Expo was planned long before the world financial crisis of 2008, the global meltdown has given Expo great significance. Although China’s surprising growth has structural uncertainties–heavy investment in fixed assets and massive bank loans–let no one doubt that China helped halt a cascading depression and that China is now helping to lead a still-shaky recovery. China is no longer simply the world’s center of cheap manufacturing; China now seeks to be world-class in new technologies, creative design and culturalexpression.

The China Pavilion is a massive superstructure, triple the height of any other pavilion, watching over Expo like a mother. Also known as the Oriental Crown, the China Pavilion celebrates traditional Chinese elements—architecture, calligraphy, gardening and urban planning. The 30-meter-high roof is constructed from56 wooden brackets, which represent the 56 ethnic groups of China. The green technologies are not just for show—China is investing heavily and intends to lead the world in their design and manufacture. The pavilion’s interior is breathtaking, highlighted by a 128-meter long, animated rendering of Song-dynasty China, patterned after a famous ancient painting.

Culture is critical at Expo. Every day there are about 100 live events and performances. In Expo’s six-month run, about 20,000. As Shanghai Party Chief Yu Zhengsheng told me, “Why is there lack of mutual understanding between nations? This is often due to cultural differences. I believe these performances will play a key role in promoting cultural exchanges and mutual understanding. Misunderstanding about China will become less. Communication will cultivate mutual trust.”

All Expos focus on the future. But for Expo 2010 Shanghai, designing a new future is not only entertaining, it is also essential.We witness the most innovative ways to change our energy challenged civilization, and we watch the world coming to know China and China the world. Thus, two major meanings of Expo intertwine: the global requirement of green technologies and the sudden rise of China.When future historians look back on the early 21st Century, these trends will likely predominate.

China and the world are partners. There is no alternative as the largest population on earth continues the greatest transformation in history.Read Expo 2010 Shanghai as China’s vision of the future.

About robert lawrence kuhn

Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international corporate strategist, investment banker and expert on China. Since 1989, he has worked with China’s senior leaders and advised the Chinese government on matters of economic policy, industrial policy, mergers and acquisitions, science and technology, media and culture, Sino-U.S. relations, and a variety of international business matters. Dr. Kuhn advises leading multinational companies, CEOs and C-Suite executives, regarding formulating and implementing China strategies in a variety of sectors, including science and technology, energy and resources, industrial, media and entertainment, healthcare / medical / pharmaceuticals, consumer products, and financial services. He works with major Chinese companies on structuring their capital markets financing and M&A activities.