SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Shanghai unveils to the world on Friday its multi-billion dollar World Expo, which China hopes will be an opportunity to assert its growing global clout and show off the fruits of its economic transformation.
Shanghai, already China’s richest and most glamorous city, has made an unprecedented effort to impress with its Expo, a world fair which has in recent years largely dropped off the world’s radar, and to grab some glory from Beijing’s Olympics.
The new roads and subway lines which criss-cross the city have been purpose built not only for Shanghai’s future growth, but also to transport the 70 million mainly Chinese who will visit during the six-month extravaganza.
China says it has spent $4.2 billion on the Expo — double what it spent at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is the most expensive and largest Expo to date, and local media have reported the true cost is closer to $58 billion, including infrastructure.
“This is a very important moment. We have made preparations for years,” Hong Hao, Deputy General for the Expo, told Reuters.
Shanghai wants to put the World Expo back on the world stage as the first developing country to host one, encouraging countries large and small to take the Expo seriously and use it as a means to improve fractured foreign ties and increase trade.
China’s relations with the outside world have been strained of late, with issues like the value of the yuan currency, a fight over censorship with Google and the trial of four Rio Tinto executives casting a pall over the country’s efforts to present itself as a respected international player.
Leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will be at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Smaller countries, such as Israel, are also making efforts to engage China through the Expo, despite the shadow cast by the financial crisis.
Yaffa Ben-Ari, deputy commissioner general of Israel for the Shanghai World Expo, said the Jewish state aimed to boost cooperation through the event. It was the first time, he said, that Israel had built its own pavilion, with the government allocating a budget of $12 million for the project.
The project has not been without its detractors. Rights groups have complained about evictions of residents to make way for the two spectacular main Expo sites on either side of the murky Huangpu River.
Some Chinese have also wondered why the country, with its growing rich-poor gap, severe environmental and other problems is spending so much on an event which lacks an Olympics’ cachet.
“Our living costs are five times yours but our salaries are one fifth of yours. Yet we survived and we are still joyfully and happily welcoming friends from all around the world,” wrote popular Shanghai blogger Han Han, with a strong sense of irony.
Despite unremitting propaganda in state media about how great the Expo will be, not all the country pavilions will be finished in time for Friday’s opening.
Organizers are also trying to iron out teething problems for handling large crowds after initial trial days received widespread complaints from tired, hungry visitors.
Still, the financial hub is abuzz with Expo fever. The blue molar-shaped “Haibao” mascot adorns every street corner, bus stop and subway station.
“Most people are very excited,” said Shanghai resident Si Yudan, 30, brushing off all the inconveniences of seemingly endless renovations and building projects to spruce up the city.
Security has been stepped up, with subway passengers forced to go through airport-style bag checks.
Analysts, however, say a terror attack is unlikely due to the relatively low global profile of the Expo.
“Of more concern would be bird flu or H1N1. If that breaks out on site, how will they manage to prevent it spreading and how will they attempt to quarantine such a large number of people?” said Greg Hallahan, regional director at business risk consultancy PSA Group in Shanghai.
Additional reporting by Rujun Shen; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Ron Popeski