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Forty-five billion dollars, that's how much Shanghai has spent on a facelift ahead of the World Expo this May. It's an even higher price tag than the seemingly extravagant Beijing Olympics. The makeover includes six new subway lines, a riverside promenade and a coat of paint for just about every neighborhood.
But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Shanghai, more and more people are asking one simple question: Is it worth it?
(Soundbite of firecrackers)
LOUISA LIM: A burst of firecrackers celebrates the opening of the Expo Boulevard. On this site, 192 countries and 50 organizations will take part in Shanghai's World Expo, building pavilions that will be open for six months, starting in May.
This will be Shanghai's moment in the sun and many, like Expo construction worker Miao Yonggan(ph), can't wait.
Mr. MIAO YONGGAN (Construction Worker, World Expo): (Through Translator) The Shanghai Expo will be even better than the Olympics. It will win glory for the Chinese people all round the world.
Unidentified Man #1: The theme of World Expo 2010 Shanghai is Better City, Better Life. In other words...
LIM: Sustainability is one of the Expo's themes. And back in August, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report praising the Expo's green legacy. But whispers of doubt are beginning to be heard.
Richard Brubaker teaches a course on sustainability at China Europe International Business School. He says the Expo, by its nature, is the very opposite of sustainable development.
Professor RICHARD BRUBAKER (Visiting Professor, China Europe International Business School): You're building 55, 56 pavilions that are the 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.
(Soundbite of conversation)
LIM: A team of his MBA students has spent three months trying to find out what will happen to the thousands of tons of steel, concrete and glass used in the pavilions. The short answer, MBA Liu Ming explains, is nobody knows.
Mr. LIU MING (MBA Student): Really, while we're digging to the details of it, we are so surprised that, you know, if you look at individual pavilions, they don't really have a plan on how do they get rid of the materials they are using in their temporary structures.
LIM: Local artists, too, were taking on the Expo in an exhibition called Makeover, which focuses on Shanghai's transformation.
I meet Chen Hanfeng standing beside his work, 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.
Mr. CHEN HANFENG (Artist): I think the concept of the Expo, it starts from the utopia, you know, utopian-style architecture, futuristic imagination. I think it's kind of like a bubble.
LIM: And I mean, what you're saying, you know, bubble pops and nothing is left.
Mr. HANGENG: After Expo is gone, everything is going to be gone, right?
LIM: Another artist, Ji Wenyu, is busily pasting a hundred official propaganda slogans on top of each other. He calls his work "The History of the People's Republic of China." The topmost slogan is Wonderful Expo; Civilization first. The world in front of you, we are by your side." He is conflicted about the Expo. He likes the idea, but dislikes the destruction wrought on his city in the Expo's name.
Mr. JI WENYU (Artist): (Through Translator) 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of a song)
LIM: This song by a punk band called Top Floor Circus also touches upon how Expo-related demolitions are affecting young locals. It's a parody of the Beijing Olympics' song, which was called "Beijing Welcomes You." The lyrics here goes, 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.
Expo spokesman Xu Wei says that's not true.
Mr. XU WEI (Spokesman, Shanghai World Expo): (Through Translator) It's not like that. Ordinary people can go. Last year, the tickets were discounted to $20 each. Objectively speaking, nine 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.
Unidentified Man #2: Expo, Shanghai, China...
Unidentified Woman: Expo, Shanghai, China...
LIM: it's certainly true that the majority of Shanghainese do welcome the Expo, but the voices of criticism are hardly free. In fact, they're being actively muzzled. That pop song has been deleted from the Chinese Internet. And a local English language magazine was forced to tone down a story raising concerns about the Expo because it was deemed too negative.
Shanghai is determined that nobody will spoil its party.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.