SHANGHAI (Reuters) - At one end of the World Expo grounds in Shanghai stands the Chinese pavilion, nearly complete, a futuristic, soaring design. At the other end is the U.S. site, an empty patch of soil in the shadow of its Canadian neighbor.
With less than 11 months until the fair opens in Shanghai, the United States is short of cash for building its pavilion and in danger of missing an event that will be attended by at least 191 countries, draw up to 70 million visitors and rank at the top of China’s business and political agenda for much of 2010.
The Chinese government has opened its wallet to help fund the attendance of more than 100 countries from Nepal to Samoa and Mali to Zimbabwe. The United States, however, cannot count on such generosity.
“The United States should be a developed country, so we cannot give it financial aid,” said Zhong Yanqun, vice-chairwoman of Shanghai Expo. “We do believe that the American government, businesses and people all want to have a wonderful pavilion.”
But the United States is hamstrung by its own rules that prevent the government from financing world fairs.
U.S. organizers have instead been forced to go cap in hand to companies to get sponsorship for the needed funds, only to run into the wreckage of the financial crisis. Of their $61 million target, they have so far raised $6 million. And the clock is ticking.
“This Expo is a national statement of how China views itself and its relationships with the world,” said Frank Lavin, chairman of the U.S. Pavilion steering committee.
“Just as a failure of the U.S. Olympic team to participate in the Beijing Olympics would not have been a positive reflection, I think a failure of the U.S. to have a pavilion would also not to be taken positively,” he said.
Only two other countries that have diplomatic relations with China have yet to confirm their participation in the Expo: Colombia and Andorra.
The World Expo lags some distance behind the Olympics by virtually any measure; international cachet, political significance, advertising dollars and television viewership.
But that is not deterring Shanghai. The city is spending $44 billion to build or expand eight subway lines, two airport terminals, two train stations, a restored riverfront, parks and roads, not to mention the 1,300 acre Expo site.
Excitement, in Shanghai, at least, is palpable.
Signs with the “Better Life, Better City” slogans dot the city. Countdown clocks stand in hotel lobbies. Vendors hawk key rings and plush toys in the image of Haibao, the turquoise molar-shaped mascot. And the skyline is wreathed in dust from all the construction.
Organizers think that up to 95 percent of the Expo visitors will be Chinese. Those able to afford entrance tickets, priced at 160 yuan ($23.40), will fall squarely within China’s emerging consumer class that so tantalizes foreign companies.
“I have already set aside a budget so that I can go a bunch of times,” said Louisa Wang, a saleswoman in her 40s. “I am cutting back on other travel and devoting the money instead to the Expo, because it’s a way to visit everywhere in the world, all in one place.”
The Shanghai Expo theme is sustainable urban living, and many countries are getting in on the act.
The Japanese pavilion is described as a “breathing organism,” encased in a light membrane that can filter sunlight and generate power from it. The walls of the Swiss pavilion are being made in part from biodegradable soybeans.
A promenade at the center of the Expo grounds is composed of old African tires and visitors will be able to rest on benches fashioned from recycled milk cartons.
The U.S. pavilion is also supposed to incorporate the concept of sustainability, if it gets off the ground.
Things have been looking up since March when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swung behind the pavilion, directly appealing to firms to stump up money, Lavin said.
The U.S. ban on government financing has made life difficult before. The United States was a no-show at the Hanover Expo in 2000. Its participation at the 2005 Aichi Expo in Japan was thanks, in part, to a big push from Toyota’s honorary chairman.
There is a clear marketing case to be made for backing the Shanghai Expo, which will run from May 1 to October 31 next year.
“The perception of the Expo in the past was that it was just one of those events,” said Jeffrey Li, president of China Novartis and co-chair of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-Americans pressing for U.S. participation.
“I think people have now realized that it’s going to be a very different Expo, and it’s going to be one of the biggest events in the year 2010,” he said.
The U.S. pavilion signed up its first corporate sponsor in April in Dell and has since added four more, including General Electric and KFC-owner Yum Brands, the largest foreign restaurant operator in China.
With momentum building, Lavin gave 90 percent odds that the United States will cobble together the money and make it to Shanghai.
“I feel pretty good about this,” he said. “If you had asked me four or five months ago, I’d have said 50-50.”
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Megan Goldin