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Shanghai World Expo: U.S. Pavilion

Barry Weisberg, our Global Cities Contributor is in Shanghai, China for the 2010 World Expo. He reports for us as part of our continuing series, “Global Cities: Challenges and Choices.”

Today Barry gives his reflections on the over 60 million dollar U.S. pavilion at the Expo.

Chinese of all ages line up every day by the tens of thousands to see the USA Pavilion, even though the attendance at the Pavilion has declined since the opening. This is as close as most Chinese will ever get to the America. What they see has been designed for this unprecedented access to millions of Chinese.

There has already been commentary on the ways in which the U.S. State Department spread the falsehood that public funding was impossible for a World Fair; the “Blackwatering” of US diplomacy to private enterprise (bypassing public oversight); the inept funding attempts that conveniently opened the last minute door for US corporations to become the saviors of the Pavilion; the non competitive out- sourcing of the “Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.” to manage the Pavilion; the absence of transparency regarding the US$61 million budget; the banal design and exhibit contents, and the corporate branding of the entire project.

The general theme of the Pavilion is “America rising to the challenge.” The “Pavilion Experience” consists of three large rooms. In the first room several hundred standing visitors are presented a very brief film that depicts various Americans, beginning with Kobe Bryant, attempting to say hello in Mandarin. In a very smart move, the US brought eighty Mandarin speaking “Ambassadors” to the Pavilion.

Once the ice is a broken large doors open and people are herded into the second room to take seats on a series of long benches, using the sports stadium format to avoid the discomfort of a lecture. The five, thirty foot high 4D screens present “The Garden,” a story of a 10 year old little girl who enlists the support of neighbors to transform an empty lot into a garden. Just in case anyone is not paying attention, the seats shake and water mist falls from the ceiling. Of course this fairy tale could occur in any country, but is less likely to occur in the US than many other countries.

Finally, the doors open again and people move into the last room. Here various corporate “partners” present individual audio-visual programs about their sustainability visions. A representative of the Pavilion was asked if these presentations present actual hands on programs or the market messages of the corporations. I will leave it to you to guess which is the case. There is a little product area where people can purchase corporate souvenirs.

Deconstructing the meaning of this “experience” it is clear that this is more than just a “sorry spectacle.” First, the US is not “rising to the challenge,” as the pitiful response to the BP oil spill once again demonstrates. US cities are growing more segregated, there is a dramatic increase in homelessness and home foreclosures, the creation of the US prison system has become a surrogate ghetto for Blacks and Latinos, and many communities remain extraordinarily violent. In Chicago alone, there were 258 reported public school shootings and 32 student deaths in 2009.

Second, the entire experience of the Pavilion is designed to depict America as a friend, with “core values” that any Chinese could agree with. But in reality the US is heading toward a “trade war.” It is also engaged in a highly aggressive encircling of China with the PAC-3 Patriot Advanced Capability missiles, recently sold to Taiwan. This is only part of the US plans for interceptor missile installations and naval deployments around China. The US is back to the containment strategy that helped destroy the USSR. The US urgency to succeed in Afghanistan may in part be motivated by a plan to use Afghanistan as a western platform against China.

If Sun Tzu (The Art of War, 2600 years ago) were to comment today on the US strategy, he might say, “If you prepare for war, preach friendship.”

Third, the entire project culminates with the effort to create Chinese consumers of the products of the “partners.” The Pavilion, far from a last minute fiasco, plays an extremely important role in US efforts to “win the hearts and minds” of the Chinese people. Whether the story presented in the Pavilion is deception or delusion, it follows in the best tradition of Hollywood myth making. But this time the story line is the course of the two most powerful countries in the world.

Barry Weisberg's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ.

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