Several weeks ago I attended the Shanghai International Literary Festival, at which Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom was a guest speaker promoting his book, “Global Shanghai, 1850 – 2010.”  I found his speech about Shanghai and regarding his book to be very interesting.  But what particularly caught my attention was the very first question when the Q&A began.  It was no surprise that the attendee asked about the strong likelihood that the United States will not have a pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010; this has been a burning question within China in general and Shanghai specifically.  Wasserstrom made some interesting points, but I could still tell from his response, as someone not based in China, that there is a disconnect abroad about how important Shanghai World Expo 2010 is to China.

The World Expo is essentially the second of a one / two punch in China’s emergence on the global stage, with the highly successful Beijing Olympics being the first.  For the U.S. not to participate in China’s coming out party would be an insult, resulting in China losing face, and economic repercussions that would cost more than the investment in a pavilion.  Furthermore, reportedly America made an oral promise to build a pavilion, resulting in China giving them an extremely preferential site compared to all other global attendees; so for the U.S. to break this promise would also be dismaying.  This is especially true given that one of America’s biggest beefs about doing business with Chinese companies is broken promises.

Professor Wasserstrom suggested that China should use the traditional term “World Fair” rather than “World Expo” when describing the event, which communicates a sense of fun and spontaneity rather than just economics.  He pointed out that those were elements about China that were absent in the highly choreographed Beijing Olympics.  Wasserstrom also commented that the ineffective “Haibao” mascot of the World Expo doesn’t help promote the event well.  Although my nearly 2 year old son is a fan and many people within Shanghai pose for photos next to Haibaos that are displayed everywhere, many Westerners I have talked to describe it as a rip-off of Gumby, even if it is supposed to be a cute, cuddly, personified Chinese character (of ren, meaning people).

Professor Wasserstrom makes some good points that more needs to be done to promote the World Expo within the U.S.  At this point a huge amount of money is being spent on advertising and other forms of marketing the World Expo within China to promote the message “we have arrived.”  But I would say the majority of Americans are probably unaware even that the World Expo is happening, much less that it is taking place in Shanghai.  It is also a tougher sell given the global economic recession, not to mention less clear benefits from association with top athletes that the Beijing Olympics clearly had.

But the problem is that the rest of the world seems to get the importance.  All major countries besides the United States are investing huge sums of money in pavilions in Shanghai that will be highly decorative and communicate something about the unique attributes of that country, invested in spite of the fact that after the World Expo is over, all pavilions will ultimately be torn down.  France in particular understands the importance of the World Expo to China, investing the most of any nation, at a reported 50 million Euros (552 million yuan).  And America’s loss could be France’s gain in terms of won business deals; it would certainly be no surprise if Airbus were to secure more orders at Boeing’s expense in the near future.

The final point that Professor Wasserstrom made that I felt was extremely apt was that participation in the World Expo is certainly in line with the message President Obama has communicated about desiring for the U.S. to make a rapprochement with the world.  What more important country is their globally for America to seek a better relationship with than China, global economic recession or no.