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SHANGHAI (Reuters Life!) - What's more expensive than the Beijing Olympics, covers a vast territory and is forcing countries and international companies to splash out millions of dollars? It's China's latest publicity project.
If China was serious about creating a legacy after the Beijing Olympics, it is outshining all its past efforts for the Shanghai World Expo, spending $4.2 billion on reinventing the world's exhibition fair as a blowout extravaganza.
While previous expos in Zaragoza and Hanover went largely unnoticed on the global agenda, Shanghai is creating such a promotional ruckus, that countries are going all out to impress an expected 70 million visitors.
"It's for countries to cozy up. For countries like Australia or France, it's make-up money, a tribute to the emperor. They are apologizing for all the trouble caused in the last few years," said Paul French, chief China analyst with retail consultancy Access Asia in Shanghai.
Of 191 countries attending, most are investing record amounts to build pavilions, with governments taking the lead in providing the bulk of investment and heads of state, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, promising to make an appearance.
"The Expo plays in the same league as the Olympic Games and the Soccer World Cup, said Dietmar Schmitz, commissioner general of Germany's Ministry of Economics and Technology.
Germany is spending $67 million on its pavilion which will let visitors sample traditional dishes like bratwurst sausage and Bavarian pork knuckle.
Saudi Arabia's spaceship pavilion, which features desert date palms and a 1,600 square-meter cinema screen (about a quarter the size of a soccer pitch), stands almost fully completed, gleaming against muddy construction rubble at adjacent unfinished sites.
The Saudi pavilion is the most expensive at $146 million, while Australia is spending $76 million and France is shelling out $68 million.
China is the first developing nation to host the World Expo and officials hope the event, held from May 1-Oct 31, will improve Shanghai's position as a global city.
"It will let Chinese people understand foreign countries much better and help them better understand us," said Xu Wei, communication and promotion deputy director for the Expo. The U.S. pavilion, he said, could serve as a place where Americans and Chinese could come together and better communicate.
"Shanghai will definitely be like New York in the future," said Tang Chunyan, 30, a shop assistant in a newly renovated mall in downtown Shanghai.
Shanghai's bustling, historic food street, Wu Jiang road, known for dumplings and smelly tofu, had to close ahead of the expo, with street vendors rehoused in the airconditioned mall.
Tang said redevelopment of the "xiao chi," or snack, food street was a good thing because of a cleaner environment.
"It is sad that the old style is gone but it shows Shanghai is developing fast."
While Shanghai is stripping hawkers and various eyesores off its streets as Beijing did before the Olympics, the event is not targeted primarily for an international audience. Officials expect only 5 percent of the visitors to be from outside China.
"Much more of the focus is China and the Chinese government promoting themselves and promoting their capabilities to their own citizens," said Greg Hallahan, strategist at business risk consultancy PSA Group in Shanghai.
Shanghai's government has spent $45 billion to upgrade transport and infrastructure and $700 million on renovating the historic Bund riverfront promenade. In just a year, the city has doubled the metro system to 420 km (260 miles) of track and opened a new airport terminal to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors per day.
Keeping the city safe is one of the biggest challenges, Expo officials said, with security measures already in overdrive.
Police stand guard with German shepherd dogs in the financial district and have distributed a brochure to office workers for identifying bombs. Subway commuters pass through airport-style baggage checks.
While Shanghai prides itself on putting on a "World class event," complete with musical fountains from France, not all residents feel they are benefiting from the showcase exhibition.
"The Expo is just showing China has money, using ordinary people's money to make it," said a 54-year-old Shanghai taxi driver who identified himself only by his surname Chang.
"It is not showing China is developed. China still has so many poor people," Chang said, adding that his family could watch the Expo on television rather than pay 160 yuan ($23.50) for a ticket.