Earlier this week, U.S. and Chinese officials signed an agreement in Seattle committing to double the number of commercial air passengers between the United States and China by 2012. China is preparing for a grand entrance onto the world stage as a modern economy and a global leader. Whatever you think of the country's human rights record, labor practices, treatment of the environment, Tibet, or of the quality of its pet food or toothpaste, or its practice of eating kittens, the county is readying itself for prime time. First up will be the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which will feature a spruced-up city that can assure people its food is safe even if its Olympic mascots are a little creepy, in a baby-talking Big Brother kind of way. But an even grander event is two years later, when Shanghai will host the 2010 World Exposition, May through October of that year. The theme is "Better City, Better Life," and no place is better suited to be an urban laboratory than this booming, morphing, massive urban center of at least 20 million people. The fair itself is partly responsible for the city's booming economy, driven by massive infrastructure investments, including billions of dollars for airport expansion, mass transit, mag-lev trains, and redevelopment projects. Preparing the fair site has been a huge experiment in urban resettlement: some 18,000 Shanghai families were removed and relocated. If you ask the Chinese, everyone was just thrilled about it. Shanghai is not a city burdened by "the Seattle Way," as travel writer Rick Steves learned while on a trade mission to Shanghai a few years back that included a bevy of Seattle big wigs: Our group of Seattle movers and shakers was struck mostly by how Shanghai was doing the moving and shaking. ... This city thrives on deadlines and big events to force progress. Electronic reader boards are already counting down the days until Expo 2010 opens in Shanghai. The government, with a top-down efficiency unencumbered by the niceties of democracy, builds the infrastructure (ports, airports, highways, and so on) in order to let capitalism really sprint. It's the government – rather than the stock market – that incubates new businesses and technologies. While Europeans brag about taking time off, Chinese brag about working long and hard. Members of the Seattle trade delegation (frustrated with the slow pace of change in American cities) were struck – even envious – of how the Chinese talk with clear "move on" words. Americans say, "we'll explore that idea." In today's China, snipers on the sidelines are allowed no bullets. The steroidal size of the fair and the muscular tactics used to put it on will create an exposition of unprecedented proportions. Already more than 100 countries will be represented at the fair, but the Chinese predict a final count of 200. It will likely be the most-visited fair in history: some 70 million attendees are expected. Even the U.S., a reluctant participant in recent fairs, plans to have a pavilion, though by the law the government is precluded from paying for one with taxpayer money. The U.S. Department of Commerce's Shanghai office is monitoring the fair closely, and taxpayer dollars can apparently be used to produce a newsletter hyping the expo. This hoopla must sound odd to many Americans, even many Northwesterners. World's fairs – aren't they dead? Expos are largely thought to be relics of yesteryear. And no wonder. The last American expo was hosted in New Orleans in 1984; the last North American fair in Vancouver, B.C., in 1986. The Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris is the international coordinating body for world's fairs. It is already entertaining fair bids into the mid-teens. If a U.S. city were successful in bidding for a fair after 2015, it would occur more 30 years after the previous U.S. fair. In other words, for an entire American generation, at least, world's fairs are history. For those interested in current and future fairs, a great source of information is Urso Chappell's Expomuseum Web site and blog. For others, consider overseas travel. The fact is, fairs have been thriving overseas. Europe has been a major site, Asia too. The last world's fair was in 2005 in Aichi, Japan, the next in 2008 in Zaragoza, Spain. In addition to being technological, commercial, and cultural showcases, the fairs are increasingly taking on environmental themes. Aichi's was "Nature's Wisdom" and Zaragoza's is "Water and Sustainable Development." In addition, cities bidding for future fairs are in developing countries where fairs have never been held, like Izmir, Turkey, or Tangier, Morocco. Emerging economies are eager to gain the focus of world attention, if only through an exposition's ephemeral moment, because those moments can be transformational. And if a city is savvy, they can be milked. The Pacific Northwest knows the long-term benefits of such events. Seattle has hosted two (1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and 1962's Century 21), Portland one (1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition), Spokane one (Expo 74, the first fair with a green theme), and Vancouver one (Expo '86). Their legacies have been substantial: Seattle's AYPE gave us the basic layout of the University of Washington campus, Century 21 left us Seattle Center and the Space Needle, Spokane's downtown was revitalized and gained amenities like Riverfront Park, and the Vancouver and Portland fairs jump-started development. All of the cities benefitted from being "put on the map" by the fairs, and the '62 fair became an iconic moment for the New Frontier and the Space Age in the national imagination. A reminder of the local legacy is upcoming: 2009 will mark the centennial of Seattle's first world's fair, the AYPE. Historians and the city are already on the case. Walt Crowley of HistoryLink and Leonard Garfield of the Museum of History and Industry co-chaired a task force for the Mayor's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs to come up with a centennial celebration plan for the city with the theme, "Celebrating the Past, Creating the Future." The proposed celebration's broad outline suggested Pacific Rim and technology exhibits and events plus taking on some legacy projects, including public art, park development (South Lake Union?), and perhaps boosting local museums. The task force report laid out a rationale, saying the AYPE represents one of those ... significant historical milestones that warrant a major public commemoration and, further, that they present unique and compelling opportunities to deepen international and regional ties, to promote peaceful trade and business development, to share ideas and innovations, to experience a diverse palette of arts and culture, to explore the history of the Pacific Northwest and larger Pacific Rim, and to create lasting legacies in the form of permanent public facilities, artworks, and other physical improvements. Those arguments are similar to the ones made to sell expos in the first place. Such commemorations can be seen as an exercise in nostalgia, a boondoggle, or a way to continue to leverage a world's fair legacy. Commemorating fairs is not uncommon: Vancouver celebrated the 20th anniversary of its fair in 2006, and Knoxville celebrated the 25th anniversary of its 1982 expo on July 4. On Monday, July 16, Historic Seattle will sponsor a presentation about the AYPE Centennial by Crowley and Garfield at the UW's Penthouse Theater. As to the future, it is unlikely that any Northwest city will host a world's fair in the near future. Vancouver, however, is hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010, and state and Cascadia officials are already looking at how to profit from trickle-down from across the border. But will Seattle or Washington state participate in any meaningful way in Shanghai? In 2005, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire was fully briefed on the 2010 Expo and discussed Century 21 and Expo '74 with the Chinese in Shanghai during a mission there to promote business ties. Cities don't usually have the bucks to participate in fairs, but it's not unprecdented. I remember Kansas City, of all places, had a major role in the U.S. Pavilion in Seville in 1992. Shanghai fair officials are recruiting cities to participate in a special part of the exposition devoted to "best practices" in environmental urban design – a natural venue to showcase Seattle's greenery. A delegation from China in early 2005 also introduced "American entrepreneurs" in Seattle to the Shanghai fair concept and proclaimed afterward that the meeting "evoked warm repercussions among the participants." It'll be interesting to learn if those "warm repercussions" produce anything.