The World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904 gave the world X-rays and ice cream cones. In 1939, the New York World's fair unveiled television broadcasts, the tape recorder and nylon stockings.
On May 1, the modern-day equivalent, the World Expo, will open in Shanghai, China. Given China's rising international profile, the Shanghai Expo seems to be less about inventions and more about geopolitics.
Countries are thinking up ever more inventive ways to tout the national brand to the expo's expected 70 million visitors, most of whom will be Chinese.
As the official World Expo song is unveiled to mark the one-month countdown, frenzied preparations are under way. Denmark is bringing its Little Mermaid statue; a real chairlift tops the Swiss exhibit, and Belgium is even giving away free diamonds to a chosen few.
It's a sign of China's political importance that the millions being spent are seen as a small price to pay.
The World's Most Expensive Vanity Project?
Shanghai is in a multibillion-dollar frenzy of self-transformation as the clock ticks down to opening day. Roads are being widened, boulevards built and temporary pavilions erected at warp speed on a huge tract of riverside land set aside for the expo.
The half-year-long exposition will end up costing more than the Beijing Olympics. Critics say it is a chance for countries to cozy up to China and kowtow visibly by building costly national pavilions, which will be torn down in six months' time after the expo is over.
But those responsible for the pavilions disagree about their political role.
Peter Sams, director of the Australian pavilion, says that ties with China are important to Australia. "We [very much see] the expo and a substantial presence — us helping China have a successful expo — as a very important part of our bilateral relationship," he says.
The country's pavilion is one of the most expensive per capita, at $76 million. Its rust-red steel exterior hints at the massive business of exporting natural resources from Canberra to Beijing. This trade indirectly led to one of the lowest points in the bilateral relationship, the sentencing earlier this week of Australian citizen Stern Hu to 10 years in prison for bribery and stealing commercial secrets about China's steel needs.
Earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao toured Australia's pavilion, which is almost finished. Expo officials admit that about 10 percent of the 91 national pavilions are not expected to be ready in time for the opening, but the Australian staffers were cocky with delight as they showed off Aboriginal art in the form of painted poles and the auditorium where a nine-minute show will be performed.
Not A Political Event?
Others disagree about the expo's political function, including Rajesh Kumar, director of the India pavilion's organizing team. Dressed in a bejeweled Indian shirt, he beams with pride as he gestures at the gigantic bamboo dome housing India's offerings.
India is spending a total of $50 million, he says, but its motivation isn't political.
"This is the World Expo, not a political forum," Kumar says. "This is not at all to do with any kind of politics or any kind of diplomacy. Nothing."
That, however, may be disingenuous, given that India is actually bringing 2,000 artists to tour 40 cities across China. That includes 50 Bollywood stars, who will strut their stuff in a one-time special show in Shanghai. Funded by the Ministry of Commerce, this Festival of India certainly sounds like an act of dance diplomacy.
U.S.: 'Rising To The Challenge'
When it comes to the U.S., Consul General Beatrice Camp says the expo is "a bright spot" in bilateral relations.
But the $61 million pavilion very nearly didn't get built after funding difficulties. It is still under construction, and on a visit to the expo site, journalists weren't taken to the building.
It's the only privately funded national pavilion, and with just a month to go, it's still short of millions of dollars. Jose Villarreal, the U.S. commissioner general to the Shanghai Expo, has pledged that it will be ready for opening day.
Fittingly, the U.S. pavilion's theme is "Rising to the Challenge." Private sponsors may be footing the bill, but Mark Germyn, chief operating officer of the pavilion, says it won't simply be a corporate advertisement.
"We are not a trade show format by any means. Our sponsor partners are ... participating because they believe ... that this is a very worthwhile opportunity to support America and America's presence in expressing, in a very positive way, American culture and society to Chinese here," Germyn says.
Japan: Mending Ties
For its part, Japan is spending big time: $140 million, almost as much as the biggest spender of all, Saudi Arabia, which is shelling out $146 million. For that price tag, Japan has built a lilac cocoon from high-tech breathable material, populated by violin-playing robots.
Noriyoshi Ehara, Japan's pavilion director, is so protective of it that he asked foreign journalists to remove their shoes before entry. Relations between Tokyo and Beijing have been haunted by Japan's wartime atrocities. But Ehara is confident that the pavilion will remake ties anew.
"We have historical issues, but now we are going to create new relations. This is it," he says, gesturing around the pavilion. "Japan's pavilion expresses the new relation with China. This is the main motif."