Potemkin Shanghai

Have you heard? The 2010 World Exposition will be held in Shanghai, China, from May 1 through October 31 this year. And yes, there will be a US pavilion there, even though through much of last year that issue was touch-and-go: it seemed no one really wanted to pay for one, least of all the US Government, but a solution was finally found involving a broad away of corporate sponsors.

But enough of that; the Neue Zürcher Zeitung has a truly mesmerizing article up now by Mattias Messmer about the preparations in Shanghai itself (Pajamas back in the closet). His key point: this is going to be a Chinese world exposition, after all, the first one ever, so you know it is going to be rather different from the last one (which was held in Zaragoza, Spain in 2008, in case you don’t remember) or indeed any other. As Messmer puts it, “In this country politics, national pride and cultural differences play a much more significant role, especially regarding great international events.” I should not surprise us at all – at least those of us who were paying attention during the 2008 Peking Summer Olympics – but it is clearly the aim of the Chinese authorities that this World Exposition be the biggest and indeed the best ever.

Also similarly to Peking two years ago, those authorities are also determined that from 1 May – and even before – Shanghai will present its best face to the world. Messmer’s article is basically devoted to describing the initiatives being taken to that end. Cost is no object: once again, whole streets are being ripped up (often because of the new subway lines being built under them), unsightly neighborhoods are being razed, often to be replaced for the most part with attractive parks, and in those neighborhoods allowed to continue to exist as before the house-facades are being spruced up.

But it doesn’t stop there. Those in charge are determined not just to make a new physical city, but also a new, improved sort of Chinese citizen to go along with it. That means that a behavior-modification campaign is now in place to “civilize” Shanghai citizens in preparation for all the encounters they are sure to have with visiting foreigners starting May 1, a campaign pursued through ubiquitous street-posters – usually featuring “Haibao,” the Expo’s little blue mascot, pictured above – reminding people to behave themselves, backed up by an enhanced police presence. These banners make it clear that there is to be no more spitting; no more littering, no more “wild jostling,” such as apparently is ordinarily the Chinese norm at bus- and train stations; and no more wandering around town in your pajamas. (Thus the title of Messmer’s piece, and it’s a shame: apparently middle-aged women wandering around town in their pajamas, with their hair in curlers and a lap-dog under their arm, is a proud Shanghai tradition.)

Interestingly, the Shanghaiers are also supposed to cut out the use of their local dialect (Shanghaihua) and just speak regular Mandarin. But that’s not all: bank clerks (presumably only the females) are being prepared to pretty themselves up for work during the Expo-period using the same uniform makeup arrangement, and it’s also said that other local young lovelies are being recruited to take over bus-ticket sales along certain high-traffic routes.

As usual, Messmer reports, the city residents are fine with all that. They’ll stop their spitting; they’ll put away their pajamas. They’ll even enter a state-sponsored contest on the theme “Knowledge of the Expo and Civilized Behavior” to get the chance to win free tickets to the event. Because, in the final analysis, they’re proud that the World Exposition is coming to their city.

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