MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

The 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis introduced the world to X-rays and ice cream cones. The New York World's Fair of 1939 unveiled television and nylon stockings. A month from now, China will reveal the modern day successor to those memorable events, but the Shanghai Expo seems to be less about inventions and more about politics - as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM: Shanghai's transforming both itself and perhaps the nature of the World Expo. This half-year long extravaganza is costing more than the Beijing Olympics. Roads have been widened, boulevards built, and a huge track of riverside land set aside for the expo. Critics say it's a chance for countries to cozy up to China, to kowtow visibly, through the building of expensive pavilions.

So is this expo all about politics? I went to ask those representing their countries.

Mr. PETER SAMS (Director, Australian pavilion): We pick up about 25 moments in Australian contemporary history...

LIM: Australia is one of the most expensive pavilions per capita at $76 million. Its rust-red steel exterior hints at the massive trade in natural resources between Canberra and 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. And being here is a political act. Pavilion Director Peter Sams doesn't deny that.

Mr. SAMS: China is extraordinarily important to Australia, has been for a very long time. Us helping China have a successful expo is a very important part of our bilateral relationship.

Mr. RAJESH KUMAR (Director, India pavilion): All these pillars come from different dynasties of India...

LIM: Others disagree about the expo's political function like Rajesh Kumar, director of the organizing team of the India pavilion. Dressed in a bejeweled Indian shirt, he beams with pride as he looks at the bamboo dome that will house India's contribution.

India is spending $50 million in total, he says, but it's not political.

Mr. KUMAR: This is a World Expo, it's not a political forum. This is not at all to do with any kind of politics or any kind of diplomacy. Nothing.

LIM: That, however, may be disingenuous, given that India is actually bringing 2,000 artists to tour 40 cities across China.

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 is still under construction. It's the only privately funded national pavilion, and with just a month to go, it's still short of millions of dollars.

Private sponsors may be footing the bill, but pavilion COO Mark Germyn says it won't simply be a corporate advertisement.

Mr. MARK GERMYN (Chief Operating Officer, U.S. pavilion): We are not a trade show format, by any means. Our sponsor partners are certainly participating because they believe 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.

Unidentified Man (Announcer): The exhibits of the Japan pavilion are based on the theme Wa(ph).

LIM: For its part, Japan is spending big time: $140 million, almost as much as the biggest spender of all, Saudi Arabia. For that, Japan has built a lilac cocoon from high-tech breathable material, populated by violin-playing robots.

Japan's pavilion director, Noriyoshi Ehara, is so protective of it he asked the foreign press 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.

Mr. NORIYOSHI EHARA (Director, Japan's pavilion): We have this historical issue, but now we are going to create new relations. Japan's pavilion expresses the new relation with China.

LIM: Do you think the expo is going to be the start of a new bilateral relationship.

Mr. EHARA: That's right, that's right.

(Soundbite of music)

LIM: As the official expo song is unveiled, frenzied preparations are underway. Denmark is bringing its Little Mermaid statue. The Swiss exhibit is topped by a real chairlift. And Belgium is even giving away free diamonds to a chosen few. Countries are thinking up evermore inventive ways to taut their national brand to the expo's expected 70 million visitors, most of whom will be Chinese. It's a sign of China's political importance, that the millions of dollars this is costing is seen as a small price to pay.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

KELLY: For a sneak peak of the Shanghai World Expo exhibits, go to our Web site npr.org.

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