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CHINA: World Expo a Launch Pad for ‘New Public Diplomacy’

BEIJING, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - More than 60 years after foreign colonial powers left the bustling hub of Shanghai, China is truly recapturing the wayward city.

Shanghai is playing host to the most ambitious World Expo ever, designed to demonstrate that the country’s communist party leaders are fully in control and the conductors of a carefully scripted ascent to global authority.

The Expo site stretching for several kilometres along the Huangpu River is perceived by many here as a counterpoint to Shanghai colonial legacy, exemplified by the elegant buildings of the historic Bund on the other riverfront.

The local media have been vocal in comparing the Shanghai Expo with the 1970 Osaka Expo that premiered post-war Japan’s rapid development to the outside world, transforming the faraway country into a hot tourist destination.

“The Shanghai Expo is about national rejuvenation in the same way as the Osaka exhibition showed the progress made by Japan in the years after the war,” said an editorial in the ‘China Business News’ daily. “Like Osaka, the Shanghai setting is one of a city at the forefront of economic development and the Expo futuristic buildings symbolise China’s reach for the future.”

Historical parallels are drawn by many here, but mainly behind the scenes. Officially, Beijing intends to use Shanghai for the formal launch of its “public diplomacy” and the Expo as a showcase of the country’s soft power – its culture, design, tourism and hospitality.

“Public diplomacy is a new concept for us,” said Tang Xiaosun, international relations expert with the Foreign Languages and Trade University in Guangzhou. “China is now so much the focus of international attention that we need to make sure we have the means to influence public perceptions abroad ourselves.”

In the past 30 years of rapid economic development, Beijing has relied mainly on its foreign diplomacy for international dialogue and image building. But China’s transformation from a politically isolated country into a fast-rising global player has dictated the need for more astute and diverse exchanges with the international public.

Speaking to the press in March, foreign minister Yang Jiechi said the Expo would be the launch pad for China’s new “public diplomacy”.

“Public diplomacy emerges with the requirements of the time and now it is just the right moment for China,” he said at a press conference during the annual session of the parliament. “We are full of optimism that it can accomplish great things.”

Experts say Chinese diplomats began preparing in earnest for this diplomatic debut after the debacle of the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch’s world relay and the barrage of criticism Beijing received for its handling of the Tibetan riots the same year.

They contend the world’s misconceptions about China have grown since 2003 when Beijing belatedly released information about the extent of the SARS epidemic in the country and let the virus spread unchecked. Since then China’s image has suffered blow after blow as a series of shoddy “made-in- China” consumer goods scandals hit the news.

Recent months have brought more adverse publicity for image-conscious Beijing. In December 2009 China executed a British national for drug smuggling, sparking outrage from British leaders who had appealed for clemency on mental health grounds.

Four executives of the mining company Rio Tinto were sentenced in a Shanghai court to as many as 14 years in jail in March after being convicted of bribery and stealing commercial secrets. Foreign businesses in the country say Beijing has been less welcoming in recent months, restricting access to domestic markets and giving preferences to its own national companies.

China has had to fend off claims that its growing economic power is making it act more assertively on the world stage.

As a descendent of the popular World Fair in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Shanghai expo presents an opportunity for Chinese communist leaders to showcase the country’s soft power.

“By hosting the 2010 world Expo we present China not only as a strong economic power,” Wu Jianmin, a senior Chinese diplomat told the media. Organisers say 189 countries will take part in the six-month extravaganza that opens on May 1. The spectacle is expected to attract 70 million visitors, five million of them foreigners.

Shanghai is estimated to have spent 4.2 billion U.S. dollars on the exposition – double what Beijing spent on the 2008 Olympics – and billions more on an expensive makeover of the city infrastructure.

About 100 foreign dignitaries are expected to attend the event. Leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, will be at the Friday’s opening ceremony.

Chinese historians contend Shanghai had been dreaming to host the Expo for more than a hundred years. In 1894, Zheng Guanying, a well-known Chinese thinker, was said to have proposed the idea of hosting the World Expo in Shanghai in his masterpiece ‘Words of Warning in Times of Prosperity’. Ironically, people on the streets in Beijing each had words of warning about the Expo.

“After the Olympics, Beijing became a very expensive place to live,” said a newspaper kiosk vendor who gave her name as Luo. “Shanghai is impossibly pricey even now – what would it be after the six months of the Expo are over? ”

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