Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: China Discovers World Expo is No Olympics





[Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the editor of the “China Beat” and a past contributor to publications such as Forbes.com; Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, currently in Shanghai, is the author, most recently, of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” just published by Oxford University Press. Both authors are both based in the History Department of the University of California, Irvine.]

SHANGHAI: From gigantic video displays on Shanghai skyscrapers to electronic monitors inside plush subways showcasing luxury products and the country’s latest engineering marvels, the message is clear: China has arrived. Hosting the World Expo with grand pavilions and futuristic displays, Shanghai can barely contain its brimming pride. But for all the razzle-dazzle, the Chinese government must feel some disappointment that this “second Olympics” is barely registering in world opinion. The past three decades of intensified globalization, bringing countries and their splendors much closer together, may have robbed China of the mystique associated with the great World’s Fairs of earlier eras....

What foreign visitors think hardly matters. There are so few, we are sometimes stared at as if we were not fellow spectators but part of the show, similar to the experiences of Li Gui, a Chinese traveler to the first official American World’s Fair, the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

That World’s Fair held in Philadelphia has broader relevance, reminding us that Shanghai’s Expo is not the first to signal a country’s rapid rise. The Expo tradition was launched with London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition. For the next two decades, only European capitals were deemed advanced enough technologically, influential enough economically, and international-minded enough culturally to host World’s Fairs, the most prominent international events in that era before the television-fueled Olympic surge. The United States was the first non-European country to break into the charmed circle of World’s Fair hosts, and an Asian country would not host until Japan’s Osaka Expo in 1970. Now, with an economy on the verge of displacing Japan’s as the world’s second largest, it is China’s turn. And rather than hosting a World’s Fair like any other, it’s staging the largest in history....

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