Solving a Chinese puzzle

Gary Locke seems to be hands-on in helping to solve the diplomatic problem of U.S. expo participation in Shanghai.
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Gary Locke seems to be hands-on in helping to solve the diplomatic problem of U.S. expo participation in Shanghai.

Last March I asked if Gary Locke could save the world's fair, Shanghai's Expo 2010. United States participation in the fair has been in doubt, and became a potential threat to U.S.-China relations. The fair will be the largest world's fair in history, attracting an estimated 70 million visitors (mostly Chinese) and some 200 participating countries. Failure for the U.S. to join the show would have been seen in China as a slap in the face.

But the Obama administration has redoubled its efforts to support the struggling U.S. pavilion effort, which must be funded privately. And if Locke isn't saving the fair single handedly, he is taking a hands-on role in it now. The former Washington governor and now U.S. Commerce Secretary Locke was in China last week, ending his trip in Shanghai at the ground-breaking for the U.S. pavilion. He also helped announced a new major pavilion sponsor: Walmart.

In a statement, Locke had this to say:

"Last week, the United States confirmed its participation in the Expo, and today we are celebrating a significant new development — Walmart's partnership with the USA Pavilion," Locke said. "It is important to see Walmart and other leading American companies embrace this effort. Their support will help ensure that our National Pavilion will offer all who visit it an unforgettable experience and make America proud."

For its part, Walmart said it was happy to show its commitment to China and join in the U.S. pavilion's sustainability theme. Everyone's on that band wagon, so it's a good thing the term is elastic. Walmart's idea of sustainability seems to be making cheap goods abundant. The theme of the expo is urban development, "Better City, Better Life," but like most recent fairs will focus strongly on green development.

Pavilion fundraising is far from complete and has been difficult given both the Great Recession and the ups and downs of the pavilion effort itself. The pavilion is not yet fully funded and months late, but other major sponsors that have already stepped forward include Dell, Pepsi, Cargill, GE, 3M, and Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and Pizza Hut. The pavilion budget was estimated at around $60 million; more than half of that has been raised, but there is less than a year until the fair opens. At fairs this size, countries usually go all-out with their pavilions as a point of national pride. The Chinese pavilion alone will cost an estimated $200 million.

Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton also recently appointed Jose H. Villarreal as U.S. Commissioner General for the expo. He'll oversee the pavilion and be the U.S. government's official representative.

Critics of the pavilion effort, including the BH&L Group which was rejected by a flawed State Department bidding process, have worried that the pavilion would be a "rush job." BH&L has offered a less expensive alternative. The U.S. has a history of poor showings at recent expos, especially large ones that showcase major national pavilions. The U.S. effort at Seville '92 was a recycled geodesic dome with a dated film from General Motors. At Hanover's turn-of-the-century expo in 2000, the U.S. didn't bother to show up at all. Funding pavilions with corporate sponsors, which is the way the U.S. does it, can lead to a hodge-podge if planners aren't careful.

The firm working on the pavilion's creative side says they're going to offer pavilion-goers a way to experience the theme of "Rising to the Challenge," how to make cities more livable. In USA Today, Greg Lombardo from BRC Imagination Arts says, "We don't like the idea of bashing people over the head with information. We're creating a visceral experience — something that's four-dimensional and engages every one of the senses."

The U.S. effort was kept alive with financial aid from China, namely a loan to keep the pavilion team going. Funny, China's loans seem to be par for the course for financing American these days. They bruised some Americans' pride, but it seems to be doing the trick and was a sign of how important it was to the Chinese that the U.S. participate. Ground is broken, progress is being made, but whether we wind up with a show that makes us proud in three dimensions, let alone four, remains to be seen.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.