After the Expo: Urban Renewal With Chinese Characteristics

The future belongs to crowds. That’s the lesson in a sentence from Expo 2010, which concluded in Shanghai on Sunday after six months, a record-breaking 73 million visitors, and 30,000 newborns saddled with the unfortunate name of "Shibo" (Chinese for "Expo"). Estimates for the cost of the World’s Fair—the largest and most expensive in history—run as high $58 billion, depending on how Shanghai’s infrastructure upgrades are accounted for.

Visiting the Expo could be a grueling experience. Roughly the size of Central Park, the fairground could accommodate 600,000 people. But daily attendance peaked in late October at 1 million, creating a park both vast and massively overcrowded. Locals warning visitors "If you don’t go you’ll regret it; if you do you’ll regret it twice as much," were specifically warning of the epic lines, which in the Expo’s final days took anywhere from five to 11 hours to get through at the most popular pavilions. (At one point Turkey sparked a minor incident by accusing Saudi Arabia and Germany of padding their waits for prestige.)

Chinese officials guaranteed they would shatter the record set by Osaka in 1970 by giving away millions of free tickets and subsidizing numerous tours. For many visitors, the most popular souvenir wasn’t some tchotchke featuring the Expo’s ubiquitous blue mascot, Haibao, but the folding plastic stools hawked outside the gates.

The Expo’s stated theme was "Better City, Better Life," and organizers boasted it was the first World’s Fair devoted to the contemplation of cities. Its finale Sunday included a "Shanghai Declaration" signed by all participants advocating for greener, more sustainable, and more equitable ones. "We have come to realize that people's understanding and pursuit of a better life are both the foundations and the engines of urban development," the official English translation stated. "We are also convinced that it is necessary to re-examine the relationship between people, cities and our planet. We agree that, in tackling the challenges of urban development, innovation offers solutions and the concept of 'Cities of Harmony' embodies our dreams."

"Cities of Harmony" echoes the "harmonious society" envisioned by Chinese president Hu Jintao as the outcome of his "scientific development" policy established in 2005. As the Expo’s chairman put it, "I think the key is now to solve the problems that have been brought about by development through development. The priority is development."

And the top priority of the Expo was to sell 70 million Chinese attendees—many of who were visiting Shanghai for the first time from the countryside—on the urgency of deserting their farms for cities. McKinsey expects China’s urban population to rise by 350 million in the next 15 years, of whom 240 million will be internal emigrants. Sheltering them will require 5 million new buildings and as many as 50,000 skyscrapers, thereby underwriting both China’s real estate bubble and its torrid rate of GDP growth.

As popular as Saudi Arabia’s and Germany’s were, the real message of the Expo was embodied by its Theme pavilions, which offered fair-goers a crash course on the past, present, and future of cities. In one, attendees posed for photographs with a wax effigy of a family of four from exurban Phoenix, who were depicted with a shopping cart overflowing with groceries (top, below). Another reprinted lines from last December’s Copenhagen Accord to underscore the threat of climate change. (Never mind that the Oil pavilion sponsored by CNPC, Sinopec and CNOOC featured a mascot named "Oil Baby." "Oil represents oil and gas, while baby means growth and hope.")

And in yet another, Chinese visitors were introduced to Le Corbusier, whose plans to knock down the entire Marais district in Paris and replace it with rows of identical towers have more or less been executed in Shanghai. In the Expo’s telling, Corbu "always designed cities as beautiful as possible, ‘with enthusiasm, with faith in love and beauty…’ Regrettably, his works were not sufficiently appreciated by his contemporaries."

Not so in contemporary China, where the Expo’s task was to put a smiling face on the rationale for forced demolitions followed by breakneck construction. A more honest defense of the former appeared in the press a few weeks before the fair’s closing, after a standoff in the Jiangxi province southwest of Shanghai pitting nearly 200 government workers against a family fighting to preserve their home from demolition ended with the family lighting themselves on fire. In response to the resulting outrage, a local government official wrote an open letter to Caixin arguing the furor obscured some inconvenient truths:

When so many are denouncing the forced demolition policy, it seems that we all ignore a basic fact—everyone is the beneficiary of forced demolition policies. When you are living in a spacious and comfortable house, when you are walking on the street, when reporters are writing articles condemning forced demolition policies in luxurious hotels, can you imagine that the land under your feet was once obtained by the government by forced demolition? Therefore, to some degree, we won't have urbanization without forced demolitions. And we won't have a ‘brand new China’ without urbanization. From this point, I would add that there is no ‘new China’ without the forced demolition.

There would have certainly been no Expo without it. Building the fair required stripping the footprint clean of the shipyard and worker housing that once stood there, relocating 10,660 families in the process. In the coming months, local authorities will flatten the site again, as the first Expo devoted to sustainable urban development is destined to be landfill. From the Financial Times:

According to the rules of the Bureau International des Expositions, the global governing body of Expos, almost all of the 200-odd pavilions that covered the 5 sq km site must be taken down. But that creates a contradiction: that this greenest of Expos will inevitably create tonnes of waste by the simple fact of its destruction.

The Shanghai Expo’s own rules state each pavilion must be recycled, although no one knows how to go about this. (China’s own pavilion will survive as one of the fair’s few permanent structures.) Most, the newspaper notes, "will simply vanish—leaving only prime real estate perfect for that most Shanghainese of sports: the construction of yet more luxury residential properties to be snapped up by speculators."

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