Paris Hilton said that Shanghai looked “like the future,” although the MTV award show she attended there presumably wasn’t located in the slums. That characterization—not the growing inequality endemic to Shanghai’s explosive development—is what the city wants to be the dominant narrative for their 2010 World Expo, whose theme will be “better city, better life.” The event has its origins in the famous series of world’s fairs held in North America and Europe around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern expos don’t get much press stateside, but this is China and the world will surely be watching, especially as Shanghai 2010 looks to be gargantuan, attracting a predicted 70 million visitors — and raising nearly as many ethical questions in the process.
The event’s many country pavilions are sure to display the latest, greatest, greenest innovations in urban development, some of which will no doubt be welcome. There will be an “urban best practices area,” which will showcase solutions from traffic reduction techniques to the use of “smart cards” to enhance urban communication. UN Habitat, the United Nations’ urban affairs agency and ostensibly an advocate for housing rights, is whole heartedly endorsing the proceedings. One UN official actually described the recent Beijing Olympics, which displaced 1.5 million people, as “giving people great happiness.” The Expo’s promoters have been calling it the next Olympics, which will demonstrate Shanghai’s arrival as a top tier global city.
The Expo’s authoritarian setting alone raises a host of unsettling issues given the apparent theme of more humane living. You’d think the cruelty with which the Chinese authorities demolished Beijing neighborhoods, and then crushed the resultant dissent, might have led major international organizations like UN Habitat or the Bureau of International Exhibitions to be vocal about avoiding a repeat in connection with the Expo. I haven’t heard either say a thing about the 18,000 Shanghainese who were reportedly evicted from the eventual Expo site. Aren’t housing rights part of making cities better?
The Chinese authorities are also gushing about the level of high-tech security that they will have in place during the event, which lasts from May to October. Where does the securitization of cities fit with the “smart” innovations that the event promises to demonstrate? What about China’s system of household registration, which relegates rural migrants to second class citizenship (and whose exploited labor built many of the structures that will dazzle foreign visitors next year)? It seems cruel for the world to celebrate its increasing connectivity in a place where millions of people don’t even have the right to move freely within their own country.
No, I’m not against holding mega-events in China per se. I’m just worried that frank discussion on these issues will get whitewashed because they offend the host. Will the Expo rise to the occasion, or will it be an authoritarian Epcot that substitutes gimmicky “smart solutions” for social progress? In this bizarre milieu, it will be worth paying attention to what the participant countries and the UN put forth as the future of sustainable urbanism.