Following the Beijing Olympics and preceding the Asian Games in Guangzhou, Shanghai is hosting the World Expo.
This is yet another project of national aggrandisement, producing yet more white elephants at the expense of urgent development needs. Officially costing US$4.2 billion (and unofficially US$58 billion), the expo has cost more than the Beijing Olympics.
The first expo took place in London in 1851 under the title 'Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations'. For the next century and a half, the expo evolved from a showcase of industrial development to cultural exchange. More recently it has been used to polish the images of the participating nations and in particular the host country. When overseas travel was limited and expensive and information not readily available, the expo provided a focus to promote science and technology and the exchange of ideas on issues affecting humanity.
With the growing ease and dwindling cost of international travel, communications and media infrastructure, there is no longer a need to showcase industrial development or introduce countries to each other in a centralised exhibition. The expo is now simply a non-event on the global calendar. The immense cost of constructing an exhibition site has made many countries reluctant to host or to participate in it every two years. As a result, many recent expos were hosted by developing countries, or third-tier cities in developed countries, to brandish their images. Examples are: Spokane, Washington state, US (1974); Knoxville, Tennessee, US (1982); Daejeon, South Korea (1995), and Aichi, Japan (2005). No major world city has hosted this event in the past three decades.
The site of the next expo, in 2012, is Yeosu, South Korea, then in Antalya, Turkey, in 2016.
The experience of countries that built massive infrastructure to host global events has been dismal - mostly financial disasters with few lasting benefits for host communities. The same is happening with Beijing Olympic venues like the Bird's Nest stadium and Water Cube. Only one event has been hosted at the Bird's Nest since the Olympics, a performance of Puccini's Turandot. The rest of the time, tourists visiting the stadium bring the only revenue, and its maintenance costs are increasingly problematic. The Water Cube has also become a tourist spot; no athletic event has been hosted there. The Olympic village is a ghost town.
The expo organisers must be thrilled to have Shanghai as the latest sucker bearing the exorbitant costs of the biggest expo extravaganza ever. The countries exhibiting there are mainly motivated by fear of hurting their commercial and political relationship with China should they not take part.
Perhaps expo has its advantages as a catalyst to speed up the construction of infrastructure such as roads, airports and subways, and as an opportunity to educate the populace on etiquette when playing host to foreign visitors. But to me, the sight of the locals sashaying in pyjamas along the Bund is quite charming.
Tom Yam, Discovery Bay