Shanghai Expo opens; Beijing has spent an estimated $45 billion on it

The buildings along the banks of the Huangpu river, which runs right through Shanghai, have always been powerful symbols.

In the early 20th century, the European trading companies which ruled Shanghai's commerce — and much of Asia's — built an impressive array of grand trading houses and banks along the river's Bund, just in case any visitor had any doubt as to who was in charge of the prosperous port.

But now, a hundred years later, the Europeans' legacy is, literally, being left in China's shadow. Across the Bund now lies an even grander line-up of buildings, from a 60 metre-tall red pyramid and golden Buddhist temples to structures from the space age.

For the next six months, the Huangpu's banks will host the biggest and most expensive world's fair in history, an event seen as a display of China's economic might in its financial centre.

If the Olympics marked a display of China's political power, the Shanghai Expo, which was formally kicked off on Friday, is being seen as an opportunity for China to showcase its soft power to the 189 countries which will attend the event.

“The Expo is a unique opportunity for the world to understand China, and for the world to develop links with people and businesses here,” said D.K. Nangia, who as director of India's $ 9-million pavilion, will head New Delhi's cultural and economic initiatives in Shanghai.

India's pavilion, however, will face stiff competition, seemingly paling in comparison to the much grander efforts of a host of countries, from the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia to Denmark, which have so far grabbed all the headlines in China.

The U.K. pavilion, a giant porcupine-like structure with 60,000 steel rods, has attracted the biggest queues so far in the Expo's dry runs held this week, organisers said. The Danish pavilion, which features the famous “Little Mermaid” statue, has been another favourite with the locals.

Top of the list, of course, has been the home country's pavilion, a 60-metre tall giant inverted “Oriental Crown.” The Chinese government has spent an estimated $ 45 billion on the Expo, upgrading Shanghai's infrastructure in a bid to make the city a “world financial capital” by 2020.

The city's infrastructure has, however, struggled so far to cope with the surge of tourists from across China and the world this past week, as the Expo prepares to open its doors on Saturday. It is expected to attract an estimated 70 million visitors – 25 million tickets have already been sold.

The fair is attracting tourists from all over China's far corners, and like the Olympics, has invoked a sense of national pride in many Chinese. “It is a chance for China to show its development,” said Li Xianyan, a volunteer at the Expo who travelled all the way from Heilongjiang in the north to be a part of the event.

But a tightening of security and the dislocation of thousands to make way for the Expo has angered many residents in Shanghai.

A reported 6,000 people have been detained in crime sweeps. Many Shanghai residents have also criticised the local government's massive spending of taxpayer's money on the project in the midst of the economic downturn.

"It is a chance for China to show its development,” said Li Xianyan, a volunteer at the Expo who travelled all the way from Heilongjiang in the north to be a part of the event. “It is also a chance for young Chinese who will never have a chance to travel abroad to experience other cultures and learn about other parts of the world,” she told The Hindu.

But a tightening of security and the dislocation of thousands to make way for the Expo has angered many residents in Shanghai. A reported 6,000 people have been detained in crime sweeps. Many Shanghai residents have also criticised the local government's massive spending of taxpayer's money on the project in the midst of the economic downturn, saying the money should have been diverted to social welfare projects instead.

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