Party's over but the jury is still out on expo

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 November, 2010, 12:00am

The dust is settling in Shanghai on the biggest World Expo in history, which ended on Sunday, and the demolition vehicles are ready to start tearing down the site. But it may take years before the city can truly judge the legacy of the mammoth six-month event.

For 184 days, representatives of 190 countries and 56 international organisations exhibited their interpretations of the theme, 'better city, better life' to just over 73 million visitors.

Now the party is over, many in Shanghai are scratching their heads about just how much it really improved the city, let alone their lives.

For the past eight years there has been almost no way to escape the expo in Shanghai. It has been emblazoned across banners and billboards on every street, propaganda slogans have been blaring almost incessantly from radios and televisions, and the fair's misshapen blue mascot Haibao has been all but omnipresent.

The city spent countless billions of yuan - no official figures have been released - upgrading Shanghai's infrastructure in every conceivable way, from massively expanding the subway network, to building roads and adding tunnels across the Huangpu River, to replacing virtually every utilities pipe in the city centre.

In the run up to the expo those myriad public works had a huge impact on residents' daily lives - and few would have claimed the dust, construction noise and road diversions made things any 'better'.

But there can be no doubt that the now complete transport upgrade has resulted in a dramatic improvement to life in the city, making many of the suburbs more accessible and cutting down on the notorious gridlocks. Just how long the smoother flow lasts once expo-related traffic restrictions are lifted is anyone's guess.

Unfortunately, cracks are beginning to appear in the veneer. Many city-centre roads and pavements hurriedly resurfaced ahead of the expo are starting to come apart. Barely a week goes by without the local media reporting at least one technical malfunction snarling up the metro system - something government officials privately admit is partly due to the frantic pace at which it was constructed.

Those same officials are reluctant to speculate about what the expo's long-term legacy will be for the city, though one suggested it had helped raise residents' expectations for their quality of life.

'I think the one thing that has had the biggest impact on ordinary Shanghai people is the environment,' one said.

Publicly, though, the record-breaking expo is touted as an unbridled success - something that now seems a foregone conclusion but which was far from a certainty right up to and beyond the May 1 opening.

As Premier Wen Jiabao noted in his address to the closing conference on Sunday, the event came at a particularly difficult time economically, coming hard on the heels of the global financial crisis.

Officials from various national pavilions admitted privately that the financial crisis meant budgets for their exhibitions were slashed.

Had the financial maelstrom struck any earlier, consulate staff suggest, the expo would have been a very different affair as the extravagant architectural costs for the pavilion buildings would have suffered the same fate. But from another point of view, the expo couldn't have been better timed for Shanghai.

Until the beginning of this year, the numbers of expatriates frequenting the city's well-to-do restaurants and bars were in steep decline as multinational corporations cut back on non-local employees.

The sudden influx of thousands of international pavilion staff and their families cushioned the blow considerably and helped Shanghai maintain its image as an international city.

The expo also played a key role in promoting that image to the domestic market, with a constant publicity blitz in national newspapers, television and news websites. But city officials admit they were taken aback by just how little attention the expo got from the international media - particularly in comparison to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Aside from the opening and closing ceremonies and initial concerns about low visitor numbers and organisers' teething troubles, the expo garnered little attention on the international stage.

Shanghai-based writer Adam Minter - one of the few overseas journalists in the city to be positively enthusiastic about the expo - said he believed the world's media hadn't given the expo a fair run.

'It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation,' he said. 'There is an assumption that people aren't interested in it because nobody has heard about it in the US.

'I admit that expos haven't really been relevant for a long time now, but I would argue that in this case it is incredibly relevant if only because of the tremendous diplomatic pressure that was placed on countries to make sure they attended, and in many cases spend a considerable sum of money on it.'

A constant procession of state leaders and government officials from just about every participating country - in other words, just about the whole world - has tramped through the Shanghai expo, and all were treated to meetings with high-level Chinese officials.

Minter said this had enabled countries to speed up negotiations on projects and helped smaller nations and enterprises to gain a foothold on the mainland.

'In China, if they have never heard of you then they're not going to do business with you,' Minter said. 'If there wasn't an expo a lot of these deals never would have happened.'

But Stefan Al, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of urban planning and design, said he believed that although Shanghai had 'super-sized' the expo, it was misguided to think a 'huge media event' was the best way to make a city more competitive on the international stage.

He said the Shanghai government appeared to have been influenced by the 'Bilbao effect' - the notion that the building of the Guggenheim Museum was pivotal in the Spanish city's post-industrial revival - but it would be better to focus resources on improving the city's core infrastructure.

'There was a very big contradiction between the theme ['better city, better life'] and the reality of the city of Shanghai,' Al said. 'Pudong looks spectacular from afar but up close you realise it is almost impossible to cross the road.'