There was champagne—champagne for everyone!—Friday, November 13th as the EU and Belgium shrugged off superstition and celebrated their pavilion roof-topping with pomp, circumstance, a press junket in the JW Marriott (housed in that quintessential monument to late-90s vintage Shanghai optimistic futurism, Tomorrow Square), and a tour of the pavilion-in-progress. The event maintained a veneer of glamour, despite awful weather and a photographers’ scrum that broke out when EU ambassador Serge Abou shook hands with the pavilion’s hard-working and schedule-beating Chinese workers (who, truth be told, had no champagne).
The Belgium/EU pavilion preview came complete with CGI-rendered video of beer gardens, a "Chocolate Corner," a diamond exhibit and the glowing three-story "Brain Cell" that will radiate from the Pavilion's center, linking them all and reinforcing the EU's "Intelligent Europe” theme (not to mention Pleasure-Center Europe, given the diamonds, chocolate, champagne and Belgian beer). But the real food for thought came beforehand, at the Marriott, with Abou's press conference.
Intelligent Europe: A blueprint for green prosperity?
The EU, with Belgium holding the EU Presidency, has grand plans for millions of expected Expo visitors. The aforementioned goodies are intended as a mere prelude to a wide-ranging intelligent conversation (or a conversation about intelligence, if you prefer), one that is as focused on bringing Chinese business and tourism to Europe in the 21st Century as it is on bringing the EU to China.
Plying your guests with confections and beverages known for putting people in agreeable frames of mind does seem pretty smart if you're hoping to get them to see things your way, which brings us to the most interesting part of Abou’s amicably delivered comments: What, he asked, can the European Union teach China? How can 27 countries have open borders and live together peacefully without compulsion from an army? What can China learn from Europe, which "has wild salmon in its rivers" and "is free of pretty much all heavy pollutants?"
Abou had answers, too, explaining that Europe works because "Europeans are smart." They have democracy, free thought and expression, great beer fests and love parades, and keep the peace without the use of force. For Chinese visitors, then, the opportunity to see what Europe has to offer in terms of vacation getaways, culinary delights, cultural attractions and history will also be an opportunity to learn about the world’s largest economy and most progressive democracy.
The tone and substance of these friendly (if potentially loaded) questions could have initiated a lively debate, but alas, due to time constraints, members of the press were only allowed three questions before being whisked off to the Expo grounds upriver from the Art Deco and Neoclassical facades lining the Bund, Shanghai's famous (and infamous) reminder of a previous era of European interest in China.
One could almost feel the tightrope-walk act of Abou playing to his Chinese and Western audiences. Obligatory (and potentially provocative) reminders of human rights concerns were couched in language about as threatening as a humbly proffered bowl of crème brûlée—probably the best way to serve them at a time when European nations are seeking China’s cooperation on issues as varied as international financial imbalances, nuclear proliferation and the upcoming Hopenhagen/Nopenhagen climate summit.
We're betting the diamonds (presumably not of the "blood" variety) and chocolate will draw the crowds. But will they stick around for the lesson and lectures? And, for Chinese Expo-goers, does the path to a "Better City, Better Life" necessarily lead through Brussels, Paris, Vienna or Rome? Or is Europe, perhaps, making its big Expo play out of recognition that Shanghai is now China's major port of call for any nation serious about making it in the 21st century, just as the 20th century.
China: Learning to lead?
Foreign visitors to the Expo will have plenty to consider when they visit China’s national and regional pavilions. Not only will they learn that China has a surprising array of destinations to visit, from Sanya's tropical beaches, to Jiuzhaiguo's alpine splendor, to Pingyao's medieval charm (adding more momentum to a trend which may see China become the world’s most popular tourist destination by 2014), but they’ll also learn that for a country whose per capita GDP still ranks below that of El Salvador and Namibia, China has been hitting far above its average vis-à-vis the environment.
Though it may come as a surprise, it's not difficult to understand how a nation that has functioned as the "world's factory floor" for several decades—and has paid an enormous environmental price as a result, one that has helped the West clean up its own industrial messes while consuming massive amounts of cheap Chinese-made goods—sees the wisdom in going green. And the proof is in the pudding (more dim sum egg tart, less crème brûlée).
Since the 1990’s China has led the world in reforestation, causing Asia, despite including Indonesia—the world's leader in deforestation, to record a slight increase in forest cover. China’s goal of regaining 20% forest cover by the end of 2010 occurred two years ahead of schedule. China is also projected to get 15% of its energy from renewable sources ahead of its 2020 schedule.
Not only that, but China’s aim to be the “Silicon Valley of renewables” is already bearing fruit, just look at Warren Buffet's love affair with BYD. Finally, as many Americans pushing for US "energy independence" and responsible climate policy are learning, China is now a world leader in solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing. Beyond this, aggressive government subsidies are making it possible for Chinese to leapfrog a generation of gasoline powered vehicles and go straight to hybrids and EVs. Environmentally speaking, China certainly appears to be pulling its weight, with plans to do more.
Of course, the Expo is about cooperative exchange and friendly competition, and much of the excitement building around Shanghai's big summer has to do with the sense that, along with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Expo marks the beginning of a new kind of relationship between China and the West, one where many expectations from the previous century are turned around, and in which the solutions to some of the world's biggest problems are as likely to come from Beijing as they are from Brussels or Washington DC. Expo 2010 Shanghai is shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain valuable perspective on questions of crucial global importance—and to have a fantastic time in the bargain.