Critics Worry About Shanghai Expo's Legacy

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A trumpet-shaped structure at the Shanghai World Expo i

A trumpet-shaped structure at the Shanghai World Expo is designed to soak up the sun's rays to light galleries and catch rainwater for a green approach to the event. But critics say extravagant pavilions will be taken down in six months, with little planning for their disposal. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
A trumpet-shaped structure at the Shanghai World Expo

A trumpet-shaped structure at the Shanghai World Expo is designed to soak up the sun's rays to light galleries and catch rainwater for a green approach to the event. But critics say extravagant pavilions will be taken down in six months, with little planning for their disposal.

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Shanghai has spent $45 billion on a face-lift for the upcoming 2010 World Expo, more than was spent on the Beijing Olympics. The makeover ahead of the international exposition's May 1 opening includes six new subway lines, a new riverside promenade and a coat of paint for just about every neighborhood.

But doubts are quietly being raised about the Expo's legacy.

On a huge tract of land beside the Huangpu River, 192 countries and 50 organizations will take part in the Expo, the contemporary equivalent of a world's fair. It is a massive construction site where an eye-catching array of pavilions is emerging.

Some of the pavilions are startlingly high-tech, such as the Finnish pavilion built out of a new high-tech recycled paper and plastic material.

Other exhibition areas are simply startling, such as Macau's giant bunny rabbit and the lilac dome that is Japan's "Purple Silkworm Island."

'Glory For Chinese People'

Shanghai is expecting 70 million visitors, most of them domestic, to the six-month-long extravaganza.

This will be Shanghai's moment in the sun. And many, like Expo construction worker Miao Yonggan, can't wait.

"The Shanghai Expo will be even better than the Olympics," he says, grinning. "It will win glory for Chinese people all round the world."

Chinese performers beat drums during a ceremony i

Chinese performers beat drums during a ceremony in January, marking the completion of the Chinese pavilion at the site of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese performers beat drums during a ceremony

Chinese performers beat drums during a ceremony in January, marking the completion of the Chinese pavilion at the site of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

But concerns are being voiced about the Expo's environmental impact and sustainability.

In August, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report praising the Expo's green legacy.

But Richard Brubaker, who teaches a course on sustainability at China Europe International Business School, says the Expo, by its nature, is the very opposite of sustainable development.

"You're building 55 [or] 56 country pavilions, and at the end of the six months, only the four China pavilions will remain. So 52 will be taken off, which would be to many a huge anti-sustainability campaign."

Environmental Cost

A team of his MBA students has spent the past three months trying to find out what will happen to the thousands of tons of steel, concrete and glass used in the pavilions after they are pulled down at the end of the Expo.

There are no clear figures for the total amount of building materials being used, especially given the variety of structures being built.

But one construction company involved told the students that one single pavilion needed 1,800 tons of steel. And when it comes to the disposal of the pavilions, it appears that, so far, nobody knows what will happen after they're torn down.

"When we dig into the details, we are so surprised that if you look at individual pavilions, they don't have a plan as to how they'll get rid of the materials they're using in their temporary structures," says student Liu Ming.

Altering Shanghai's Character?

Local artists, meanwhile, are focusing on how the Expo has transformed the character of Shanghai in an exhibition called "Makeover" at a local gallery.

Chen Hanfeng's work on display at OV Gallery is a bubble machine hooked up to an IV tube, belching bubbles into a cage. He's taking a sly poke at the Expo slogan "Better City, Better Life" by titling his work "Bubble City, Bubble Life."

"I think the concept of Expo starts from utopia, utopian-style architecture, futuristic imagination. It's kind of like a bubble," the artist says. He points out that, like a bubble popping "after the Expo is gone, everything's going to be gone, right?"

The work of another artist, Ji Wenyu, has 100 official propaganda slogans pasted on top of each other. He calls his work "The History of the People's Republic of China." Fittingly, the topmost slogan is: "Wonderful Expo; Civilization first. The world is in front of you, we are by your side."

Ji is conflicted about the Expo. He likes the idea, but dislikes the destruction wrought on his city in the Expo's name.

"Before every big event, the authorities are always painting the walls and covering things up. China's history is very long, but every time something new happens, they just erase history. For example, even though I'm Shanghainese born and bred, nowadays I sometimes get lost in my own city," Ji says.

Muzzling Critics

A punk band in Shanghai has written a song that touches upon how Expo-related demolitions are affecting young musicians and the local cultural scene.

It's a cynical parody of the Beijing Olympic song, which was called "Beijing Welcomes You." But the lyrics to the song by Top Floor Circus state: "Shanghai doesn't welcome you, unless you've come to buy something." The song claims the Expo will bring only the world's rich people to Shanghai.

"It's not like that," says Expo spokesman Xu Wei. "Ordinary people can go; last year, the tickets were discounted to $20 each. Objectively speaking, 9 out of every 10 Shanghainese is extremely concerned with the Expo and really welcomes it. And for any individuals who are opposed to it, well, they're free to do that."

While the majority of Shanghainese welcome the Expo, the voices of criticism are hardly free. In fact, they're being actively muzzled.

Top Floor Circus' song has been deleted from the Chinese Internet, and band members declined to be interviewed. A local English-language magazine, City Weekend, was forced to tone down a story about the Expo that was deemed "too negative."

With only 82 days to go before the opening, Shanghai is determined that nobody will spoil its party.

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