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The films made no explicit reference to democracy, human rights, freedom of religion or other political issues where the United States has long criticized China's record. The U.S. exhibit ends with a gift shop where a great many products — from teddy bears and stuffed bison to silver lapel pins and pink cowboy hats — were all marked "Made in China."
Such a revelation might not please patriotic Tea Partiers, or U.S. trade unions, but the very scramble to participate in Shanghai was driven not by an interest in lecturing (again) China about democracy, but to please the hosts by showing up. And surely it is not to impress the Chinese with our prowess at churning out cheap manufactured goods. Indeed, Chinese audiences might be happy that the pavilion souvenir shop is "buying locally" (one of the themes of the fair, after all, is sustainability).
One goal of the pavilion seems to be to offer the Chinese a look at our pluralistic society and to humanize the can-do American spirit. I was pretty critical of the U.S. pavilion in Aichi Japan in 2005 because it offered such a commercialized hodgepodge, tied together with a multi-media presentation (also by BRC), featuring an actor impersonating Benjamin Franklin who made me cringe when he did a few hip-hop moves. But in a survey of fairgoers, the pavilion proved to be very popular with the Japanese. So, despite all the critical reporting of the project and with expectations set pretty low, I will visit USA Pavilion next month with an open mind.
The fair is, of course, a world's fair, so there is much more to it than what the USA brings. Rogue countries (to us) are in attendance, such as North Korea, Sudan, Cuba, Burma, and Iran (Iran and North Korea are sited next to each other in a section of the fair already dubbed as "Axis of Evil Square"). At the moment, sabers are rattling on the Korean peninsula, which should make things interesting (if not radioactive).
There is a long history of international tensions impacting fairs. At the 1939-40 world's fair in New York, some countries exhibiting ceased to exist during the fair, and a bomb went off in the British pavilion. Fairs in Brussels ('58) and Seattle ('62) were examples of Expos where Cold War competition over atomic power and space took center stage. Fairs themselves can generate diplomatic scandal, as when the Prince of Hanover was photographed urinating outdoors near the Turkish pavilion at Expo 2000 in Germany.
The only dustup so far in Shanghai is that some Chinese have grown frustrated with lines at the German pavilion, and there have been shoving matches and cries of "Nazi." Who says fairs don't provide spectacle?
The theme of Shanghai is "Better city, Better life," which is the type that ought to interest greens and urbanists, especially people in Seattle where the mayor is a founder of a Great City initiative. The idea is that our future is in urban environments, an appropriate topic to explore in booming Shanghai, which now has a population in the vicinity of 20 million.
One good reason for Americans to attend is that much of the world is ahead of us on sustainability tactics and technology; there is much for us to learn, including what not to do.
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