Expo in Shanghai: green lessons for Seattle, U.S.

The world's biggest world's fair is underway, and the U.S. media, for once, is paying attention. There's the Hillary Clinton angle, after she helped make U.S. participation happen, but this is also a fair that shows the U.S. some options for catching up with other nations on sustainability.
Crosscut archive image.

The USA Pavilion at the Shanghai exposition

The world's biggest world's fair is underway, and the U.S. media, for once, is paying attention. There's the Hillary Clinton angle, after she helped make U.S. participation happen, but this is also a fair that shows the U.S. some options for catching up with other nations on sustainability.

Unlike many recent world's fairs, the Universal Exposition in Shanghai is getting significant press. Americans, for the most part, live with the illusion that expos are a thing of the past (Seattle is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its last, having just hosted the 100th of its first). In fact, they are booming around the world, even if the last in North America was in Vancouver in 1986.

I remember covering the big expo to commemorate Columbus' "discovery" of America in Seville in 1992: no one in America knew it was happening. The U.S. pavilion was utterly pathetic, featuring a recycled corporate film from General Motors in a geodesic dome that reeked of off-gassing plastic (that toxic "new car" smell) and a recreation of a street in Kansas City. If that was the sum of America's contributions to the world, Columbus might as well have stayed home.

Interest in Shanghai is primarily due to the clout of its host: China. Shanghai is putting on the largest expo in history, with nearly 200 countries participating (including, for the first time in history, North Korea). Seventy million visitors are hoped for (attendance so far is running below that target, but still strong with some 200,000 visitors per day). The site is more than two square miles in size.

Some of the publicity is due to, as I've covered here at Crosscut, the tribulations of U.S. participation in the fair. The U.S. almost was a no-show, the pavilion process bungled during the George W. Bush years.

The story-line runs that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the Obama administration, stepped in and saved U.S. face by raising over $60 million in corporate sponsorships to put together a last-minute pavilion (with the assistance of former Washington governor Gary Locke, a Chinese American and secretary of Commerce, who helped break ground on the pavilion).

So, Clinton's stake in the fair is a big story, and her visit there recently was of great interest, getting worldwide coverage including in the New York Times and Washington Post. Clinton passed out teddy bears to kids and wore a sky blue suit that matched the colors of the Expo mascot, and she seemed pretty unconcerned about the quality of the USA Pavilion, simply relieved that it was there. " 'It's fine,' she said to a reporter asking her what she thought of the pavilion. 'Can you imagine if we had not been here?' "

That was the concern all the way along: the United States risked infuriating China if it did not participate in what has been described as a "coming out" party for the nation. Clinton's relief reminds me of an old Charles Addams cartoon in the New Yorker, where a nurse presents an ugly man with a bundled newborn: "Congratulations," she says, "it's a baby!" For better or worse, Hillary delivered.

The drama of the delivery, however, has drawn interest from the media who, for perhaps the first time in two decades, actually seem to be interested about what is in a U.S. pavilion. Forget the scandalous process, the insider politics, the restrictions to public funding. What kind of image are we portraying to the most important market in the world?

American salesmanship is often cringe-inducing and fraught with brand overkill, but it can also, occasionally, blow people away. Recent U.S. pavilions have tended to be plastered with sponsorship logos to the point where they resemble factory outlet malls. But there have been cases where the U.S. has mounted a strong exhibit that simply outclassed the competition. For example, showing off a moon rock at Expo 70 in Osaka. What other country could display an actual piece of the moon? The rock said everything there was to say about American technology and drive. Of course, the fact that we don't yet have a Mars rock and are deep in debt to China is a statement about our current status too.

Reporters covering Clinton's Shanghai visit seem to be surprised at the degree of commercialization of the USA Pavilion's content. Reports the Washington Post:

One film [in the USA Pavilion] on the creative power of children featured interviews with representatives from corporate powerhouses Chevron, General Electric, Pepsi and Johnson & Johnson with the non-governmental organization Habitat for Humanity and the University of Washington thrown in apparently for good measure. That film was aired in the Citicorp room. In the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer room, [Hillary] Clinton was treated to a film that was the centerpiece of the U.S. message: about a tween named Rain who wanted to build a garden on an urban plot. Through cajoling and hard work, she persuades young and old to help her.

"You've got a dream, so plant it in your heart," went the song. "You can make it bloom so all the world will see." As the movie ended, the screen said in Chinese: "This film was made by Pepsi."

Since the U.S. government no longer underwrites national pavilion propaganda, but has essentially outsourced it to the corporate community under the umbrella of a pavilion-organizing non-profit, this should be of little surprise. Sponsors are going to want their pound of flesh. The real question is, have pavilion organizers been able to finesse the commercial messaging, or have they been able to put on a show that makes everyone shrug their shoulders at tacky sponsorships?

An impressive 4-D film or IMAX extravaganza can dull the blows of overt pitches by being fun or inspiring. The USA Pavilion's films were created by BRC Imagination Arts, a veteran creative firm that produced the memorable Academy Award-nominated film, Rainbow War, for the Canadian Pacific Pavilion at Expo '86 in Vancouver, and the "Spirit Lodge" for the GM pavilion too. If you don't have moon rocks, can you make 'em squeal, or at least oooh and ahhh a little?

One interesting early review from Shanghai blogger Adam Minter, who has extensively covered the problems with the USA Pavilion, is his observation that the national pavilions are often much less interesting than the purely corporate ones. In other words, while a film by Pepsi might be rather tepid in the USA Pavilion, you might have a blast over at the Coca Cola pavilion. If you're going to get a sales job, why not cut out the middleman?

Despite all the critical reporting and with expectations set pretty low, I will visit USA Pavilion next month with an open mind.

A corporate pavilion already getting good buzz: SAIC-GM's. General Motors is a USA sponsor, but in a stand-alone pavilion, they've partnered with the Shanghai Automative Industry Corp. to offer a sensational multimedia film on life in Shanghai in 2030. Minter says the corporate pavilions tend to ramp up the "gee whiz" factor. The effectiveness of such pavilions is something big corporations understand, which is why private sponsorships for national pavilions can be so hard to come by.

Another thing to keep in mind is that U.S. pavilions are not made to please U.S. audiences, or even global ones. Nearly 95 percent of Expo's Shanghai visitors will be Chinese, the other 5 percent or so from other countries. So one measure of success for USA Pavilion won't be what Americans, the media, or Expo professionals think of it, but what impact it makes on the Chinese people. A Reuters report notes that in the USA Pavilion:

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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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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