US looks to Shanghai Expo to help ease distrust

For millions of Chinese, the USA pavilion’s show at the Shanghai World Expo will be the closest they’ll ever come to an experience of America. What they’ll get — apart from long waits — is a warm welcome and a dose of Hollywood-style entertainment.

The Expo, which begins May 1 and is expected to draw up to 80 million visitors, offers a chance at cultural diplomacy at a time when relations are fraying over broader trade and geopolitical issues.

It’s “the single biggest opportunity to nation brand that’s ever come along,” says Greg Lombardo, director at BRC Imagination Arts, the Burbank, California, company designing and producing the USA pavilion program at the Expo.

“When was the last time the United States got to talk directly and intimately to millions of Chinese? We look at this as a chance to convey the story of the USA in a way that’s going to be very memorable and very positive.”

A taste of Hollywood and theme park razzle-dazzle probably won’t hurt at a time when U.S.-China ties are strained over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, trade issues and China’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue.

Never mind all that. At Shanghai’s big party, the emphasis will be on goodwill, say those involved.

“This is a bright spot in U.S.-China relations. We have a shared goal. We both want a successful Expo and a successful USA pavilion,” said Beatrice Camp, U.S. consul general in Shanghai.

For Shanghai, the Expo, which has the theme “Better City, Better Life,” offers the opportunity for a massive facelift that will help the city showcase China’s dramatic progress — much as Beijing did for the 2008 Olympics.

Less than a year ago, it was uncertain whether there would even be a U.S. pavilion, as the nonprofit group authorized by the State Department to handle the national exhibit struggled to woo recession-stricken corporate sponsors.

With practically every other country and international organization planning some kind of Expo pavilion or exhibit, Chinese officials were emphatic that America’s absence would be taken poorly. As deadlines came and went, they went ahead and did ground work on the site to ensure it would be usable, come what may.

Now, efforts in Shanghai are focused just on ensuring the pavilion will open on time, said Jose Villarreal, the San Antonio, Texas-based lawyer who is serving as the U.S. commissioner general of the USA pavilion.

Expo officials have said they expect some pavilions might open late, though they have backed away from earlier speculation that up to one in five might not be ready on time.

“Everyone knows that not opening on May 1 is not an option,” Villarreal told reporters, likening the rush to finish to “building a bicycle while you’re riding on it.”

All but $8 million of the $61 million needed to build and run the 60,000-square-foot (5,574-sq. meter) USA pavilion is secured, said Villarreal, a longtime Democratic fundraiser.

“The reason we’ve been successful is because Secretary Clinton made it a priority. She decided there was just no way the U.S. would be the only country not present at this World Expo,” he said.

With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s support, a raft of major sponsors came on board: Wal-Mart, PepsiCo, Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric — several dozen big-name multinational companies whose backing wins them space in the pavilion’s “honor wall,” use of its VIP visitors center and an exhibit in the hall visitors will walk through as they leave the pavilion.

Details of the sponsorships, like most other financial specifics of the project, have not been disclosed. But for the sponsors and companies including BRC, the expo offers one of the biggest mass marketing opportunities ever in China — and one of the biggest challenges.

With up to 800,000 people expected at the Expo each day, exhibits like the China and USA pavilions will only be able to accommodate some of the total number of visitors.

China’s pavilion, expected to be the top draw, will allow in about 50,000 visitors a day.

BRC says the U.S. pavilion — a mammoth gray steel structure meant to resemble an eagle stretching its wings in welcome — is designed to handle up to 2,500 people an hour. Even so, waits of up to five hours are expected for some of the most popular pavilions.

The 45-minute program begins with the “Spirit of America,” a video of classic American landscapes, welcomes in Chinese by ordinary Americans and celebrities and messages from Clinton and Obama.

Guests next move to a theater where, seated on benches, they will see “The Garden” — the story of a 10-year-old girl who envisages turning a vacant city lot into an urban oasis and, overcoming hardships, works with her neighbors to make that happen.

The movie — a visual parable without dialogue — will include plenty of computer-generated imagery and 4-D effects, like vibrating seats, mist and lightning, said Lombardo of BRC, which is also handling the program at the China Telecoms-China Mobile corporate pavilion.

How the U.S. pavilion will stack up against other national exhibits remains to be seen. Denmark is bringing its Little Mermaid statue all the way from Copenhagen. The Swiss exhibit is topped with a chairlift. France will feature its glorious cuisine.

Many of the pavilions, in keeping with the Expo’s theme of urban “sustainability,” feature much more whimsical and futuristic designs.

With relations as strained as they are now, it’s a good thing the U.S. will at least be there, says Ding Xinghao, director of the Shanghai Institute of American Studies.

“The Expo will be a good way for the U.S. to sell goods and advanced technology or designs to the world, but it’s not a short-cut for resolving other issues,” Ding said.