Costly way to showcase nation's achievements

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

If the Beijing Olympics was China's coming-out party, the World Expo in Shanghai aims to give its millions of visitors a taste of the nation's future. Under the theme 'Better City, Better Life', the biggest World Expo in history has already transformed the landscape of the mainland's pre-eminent commercial city. No one who attended Friday's extraordinary opening could fail to be overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of the star-studded event and the fireworks that lit up half the city.

There is much on display. Most of the expected 70 million visitors over the next six months will be from other parts of China, and will see what the future hi-tech mainland city has to offer. Attractions include an animated projection of an ancient Chinese painting, a multimedia exhibition on 30 years of reform and a feature on how technology can be used to bring about a low-carbon future.

But much of the city's - and the nation's - real achievements aren't in the pavilions. The migration of people from the countryside to urban areas since China's opening in 1978 has been unprecedented in human history. In the process, the nation has created unimagined riches and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. There have been very high costs borne by the people: family dislocation, discrimination and inequality, and environmental damage and pollution.

But today, the inexorable rise of China is universally acknowledged. The nation's products are sold everywhere in the world. Its investments span the globe. China's military is respected. By some measures, China may have already surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy. The nation's achievements are there for the world to see. They are on display every day, in its big cities, its ingenious entrepreneurs, its hard-working labourers; in the higher living standards undreamed of even just a generation ago; and in the hopes and optimism of parents, knowing their children will enjoy a better life and a brighter future than theirs.

Against that backdrop, it is hardly surprising the expo organisers would want a big celebration. Despite an original promise of a modest opening ceremony, the city was treated to a massive fireworks display. The sheer numbers associated with the event are mind-boggling. Hosting the expo alone costs US$4.2 billion, but the city has spent another US$45 billion to upgrade its infrastructure and buildings. In the process, entire old neighbourhoods have been torn down and redeveloped; hundreds of thousands of people have been relocated. The city overall will doubtless benefit from the facelift. But the people whose lives and livelihoods have been turned upside down may feel differently.

Organisers hope the expo will leave a lasting legacy. Certainly they have it right with their logo - the people have earned the fruits of their labour; they deserve better cities, and improved urban life. If the exhibition promotes that, the money spent would have been well worth it. But such goals are best achieved by investing in the welfare and interests of ordinary people rather than in huge extravaganzas.

Officials who put on the Olympics and the expo not only want to impress the world, but to make Chinese people proud. Such sentiments are understandable. But even without these and other extravaganzas, Chinese people already know they have much to be proud of. Hugely expensive and extravagant international events, with all the concomitant human and material costs, are less and less important for a country that has already arrived.