Window on the World

A glimpse of the future is stretched along the eastern and western banks of the Huangpu River. Countries, companies, cities and international organizations showcased their best wares and services. Billions were spent on preparing the expositions and the infrastructure needed to support the hundreds of thousands of visitors that daily would march through the gates. Expos are typically venues where new ideas and technologies are presented. The Philadelphia Expo of 1876 heralded the telephone, the Paris Expo of 1889 introduced the building capabilities of the steel girder, and the New York World’s Fair of 1934 highlighted television for the first time. Of course, the Shanghai Expo was no different. There were presentations of new transportation systems, robotics and consumer products. However, the real intent of the Shanghai Expo was an opportunity for China’s vast population to catch a peek at the rest of the world, while appreciating the fruits of their own efforts. Without a doubt, the Shanghai Expo was geared towards the local population. Very little was done to make it accessible to foreigners. Of course, what was the point of catering to the foreign crowd? They comprised a tiny sliver of the attendees. Visitors from deep within the Chinese countryside choked the venues. Nevertheless, if the Shanghai Expo provided any insight into what lies ahead, then the future will be crowded, chaotic and Asian-centric. 

Wait times at most exhibits were more than an hour long. Some of the more renowned venues, such as the GM, Japanese and Coca-Cola pavilions boasted wait times of 6 to 8 hours. Factory workers and farm hands jostled for space on ferries and buses. There was also a noticeable shortage of retailing and dining locations. This was in sharp contrast to western events, which are typically full of commercial activities. Entrance fees were also kept low in order to make it more accessible for the multitudes of low-income laborers. However, the organizers did not care. No one was there to make a profit. The main intent was to raise the presenters’ profiles in the eyes of the largest consumer group in the world. The exhibits at the Colombian Pavilion, for example, highlighted the country’s rich mineral resources and deep-water Pacific ports. One of the main attractions of the Argentine Pavilion was the construction of a trade corridor that will connect the Pacific with Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Chile. Likewise, scores of European cities, such as Rotterdam, Hamburg and Venice, stressed their capabilities to promote trade and commerce. At the same time, the Chinese pavilions showcased the huge advances that were achieved in such a short period of time, justifying the sacrifices that were made. Moreover, they showed the possibilities that lie ahead, along with the prosperity promised by urban living. A few days at the expo confirmed that China will soon lead global demand. With dozens of new cities sprouting out of the ground, all of them laced with vast thoroughfares and metro systems, and interconnected with high speed railroads, sleek airports and eight-lane highways, it is clear that global consumer products will soon be Asian-centric.

However, the country still has many challenges to overcome. The hectic pace of heady growth left an uneven and chaotic landscape, where the new intersects with the old. Modern high-rises are meters away from cobbled-stone lanes, crowded with street peddlers and hawkers. Fresh from the field or factory floor, the vast majority of the population lacks proper civility and social decorum. Multi-million dollar apartments are festooned with laundry racks and bed linen flapping in the breeze. Major intersections are free-for-alls, as bus drivers and pedestrians battle for the right of way. Taxi-drivers typically fall asleep at the wheel, after working two or three consecutive shifts. It is clear that regulation is lax, and there is little attempt by the society to police itself. As a result, an air of chaos reigns permanently. Still, there is a strong sense of pride and accomplishment among members of the population. The fact that millions of poor Chinese used their hard-earned savings to travel thousands of miles to endure the massive crowds and stifling heat confirms that China is enthusiastic about what lies ahead. Likewise, the fact that so many international corporations, countries and cities spent so much money, during a time period of fiscal austerity, to present their cases to the Chinese consumer, means that they perceive the great possibilities presented by China. Last of all, the fact that the Chinese government was able to transform the industrial wasteland of Pudong into a modern landscape in such a short period of time confirms its vision and purpose, as well as its ability to take a leadership role in the new global economy.