November 7, 2010
U.S. Blows an Opportunity in ShanghaiBy John Parker
One of the most disappointing exhibits at Shanghai's Expo 2010, which ended October 31, was the U.S. pavilion -- a dismal combination of ineptitude and self-loathing political correctness. As an effort to attract Chinese tourists to the U.S. or improve America's image in China, the pavilion was an epic failure, but as a symbol of Obama's America, it wasn't bad.
It's not very surprising that Shanghai Expo 2010, which just ended (coincidentally) on Halloween night, never attracted much interest in the U.S. American tourists, already in a penny-pinching mood due to the recession, were reluctant to spring for a transpacific flight ticket and also put off by a certain nervousness about growing Chinese power, which the Expo site itself, purposely dominated by the immense red ziggurat of the China pavilion, only heightened.
Having said that, the Expo as a whole was actually much more interesting and worthwhile than one might have expected. The event's best national pavilions managed to show off the best aspects of each country with dazzling architecture, lighting, and priceless treasures like the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen harbor, the centerpiece of Denmark's pavilion; or "The Dance Hall in Arles," a Van Gogh which featured prominently in the French pavilion. The favorite pavilion of this writer was Spain's, a brilliantly conceived audiovisual experience which managed to tell visitors everything important about Spain, past and present, without boring them for even a second. Spain was also represented by three extremely well done and effective city pavilions, for Bilbao, Barcelona, and Madrid. Actually, Spain's pavilions were so well done, in comparison to the environmentalist hair-shirt-wearing that characterized many other European pavilions, that a visitor might reasonably conclude that the torch of leadership in Western civilization had passed to Spain for the first time in several centuries.
And then there was the U.S. pavilion, voting "present" at history's biggest-ever opportunity to win over Chinese tourists. According to the organizers, the pavilion, organized around a "rising to the challenge" theme, was intended to "tell the story of the American spirit of perseverance, innovation, and community-building in a multi-dimensional, hi-tech presentation" and "presented the US as a place of opportunity and diversity where people come together to change their communities for the better." The reality was quite different: a muddled, disappointing fiasco which was hobbled by a combination of self-flagellating political correctness and cluelessness about what would actually interest Chinese visitors, all exacerbated by procrastination and an embarrassing lack of funds.
The disappointments began with the pavilion's architecture. The aluminum-clad structure, designed by Canadian (!) architect Clive Grout, was supposedly intended to resemble "eagles' wings." After examining it from every conceivable angle, I still fail to see the resemblance. While not exactly ugly, the structure (which one internet wag compared to a "combination air cleaner and Bose sound system") was stylistically unimaginative and overly cost-conscious -- which might be defensible when building an industrial park in Wichita, Kansas, but made no sense at all when constructing an Expo pavilion intended to show off the country to foreigners.
The attractions within, however, were a far more serious letdown. These basically consisted of three films, which the average visitor could reach only after waiting in the hot sun for several hours. It is illuminating to summarize each of these in turn, then compare what the pavilion organizers were trying to convey with what a typical mainland Chinese visitor would actually think.
The first film, "Welcome to America," showed various Americans trying to say "welcome to the U.S. pavilion" in bad Chinese. Mildly amusing, it did succeed in its goal of eliciting chuckles from Chinese visitors. However, most people in China think of the U.S. as an extremely powerful and advanced country that China will have to struggle for decades to catch up with; although the state media's reporting on the U.S. is almost exclusively negative, as is the depiction offered by China's education system, many Chinese, not trusting their own government, suspect that the U.S. is actually a paradise of wealth and freedom relative to their own country. Any local entering the pavilion with this attitude must have been confused, if not stunned, by "Welcome to America," which depicted Americans as amiable, slightly dimwitted goofballs.
The second film, "The Spirit of America", was a series of personal testimonials that were intended to "create a living portrait of the US, [and] personify America's drive and spirit, while speaking to the power of imagination and partnership." In actuality, it was a disorganized series of touchy-feely, vaguely environmentalist musings by young children and uncomfortable-looking corporate representatives, whose main purpose seemed to be to fill time between the short welcoming speeches by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama which respectively began and ended the film.
This effort could have only added to the average Chinese visitor's bafflement. In addition, the prominence of politicians was inappropriate and would still have been so even if those posts had been filled by Republicans at the time of the Expo. This writer saw many national pavilions at Expo, and there was a strong inverse correlation between the quality of a country's government and the likelihood that their pavilion would prominently feature the national leadership. The focus on Clinton and Obama was reminiscent of, for example, Iran's pavilion, which welcomed entering visitors with a huge portrait of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Few Western democracies were as unsubtle as the U.S. in this respect; even North Korea did not display Kim Jong-il prominently in its pavilion.
The third and final film, "The Garden," was the biggest letdown of all. Granted, it was at least technically proficient, with oblong screens and a few cute effects like misting the audience when it rained on screen. However, content-wise, it was an unmitigated disaster. The film was intended to convey a message that people can work together to make their cities better, featuring a story of a young girl who succeeds in turning a small vacant lot into a garden park after overcoming many obstacles. The implementation of this concept might have gone over well with an audience of undergraduates at a second-tier journalism school in the U.S., but as the main attraction at the U.S. Expo pavilion, it was so spectacularly inappropriate and downright clueless that this writer literally cringed watching it.
This was for a number of reasons. First, at an event where literally every other country present tried to put its best foot forward, this film presented U.S. cities as decaying and backward, which, besides representing the usual leftist obsession with the negative, is factually incorrect -- American cities certainly have bad neighborhoods (most of which are run by liberal politicians), but they are not crime-ridden ghettos as a whole. Second, there was a huge disconnect culturally between the film's message of volunteerism and the reality of life in urban China. In mainland China, NGOs have to be approved by the CCP dictatorship or they just disappear. So advising Chinese people that they should form organizations to beautify their neighborhoods is not likely to be productive. Third, the "garden" in the film was built on a vacant lot; again, this is a scenario that simply has no relevance to urban China. With four times the U.S. population on about the same land area, China has such a huge demand for land that vacant lots barely exist; when they do, they are usually controlled by a property developer and invariably walled off and guarded full-time. Any Chinese attempting to emulate the girl in the film would, therefore, likely be run off by baton-wielding security guards.
Fourth, the self-deprecating nature of the film was totally unsuited for the audience. Self-criticism, in general, is a Western phenomenon; outside the West, self-congratulation is the norm, a fact of life abroad that consistently eludes leftists despite their paper-thin, "eat-at-more-foreign-restaurants-than-thou" veneer of sophistication. Westerners win points with their compatriots by "standing up and taking responsibility" when things go wrong. In Asia, historically, people who "stand up and take responsibility" for disasters have usually been decapitated shortly thereafter. Chinese people already believe that their culture is the greatest on earth and China is the greatest country on earth; hence, a self-critical presentation not only will not impress them, but it also will tend only to confirm their already ample prejudices against you. As is so often the case, a left-wing attempt to behave in an "enlightened" manner ("we won't brag about ourselves like that terrible Bush") simply backfired, damaging Western interests with no compensating benefit. (At least this outcome was wholly consistent with the Obama administration's foreign policy.)
Fifth, in the film, a white-collar banker character, in an obvious dig at Wall Street, is the last and most reluctant to support the girl's efforts. It's hard to know where to begin in lambasting this bit of gratuitous capitalist-bashing. One might start by pointing out that it is contemptible to use an event like the Expo to score domestic political points. Perhaps more importantly, this casual blue-state auto-eroticism was (yet again) utterly inappropriate for China; in the PRC, it was hardline socialism which reduced cities to crumbling wrecks, and only allowing market forces to operate created enough wealth to reverse that disaster. Finally, besides the objectionable nature of demonizing society's most productive citizens -- quite ironically, inasmuch as most of the funds to build the pavilion came from U.S. corporations -- the banker-bashing presented the U.S. as a divided society which demonizes certain groups, exactly the opposite of the egalitarian ideal the filmmakers purport to represent.
Last but not least, one could point out the absurdity, given the film's intended audience, of the lonely ghetto child being white whilst the neighbors who help her belong to various ethnic minorities. Americans, of course, are exposed to this kind of feckless tokenism every time they turn on their TVs; inside the U.S., while inane, it's at least understandable, given the specific history and cultural environment of the country. But China is not the U.S., and to Chinese, such symbolic gestures are simply meaningless. Hence, to include them in a film meant for Chinese people is totally ludicrous and typifies a key trait of the modern leftist, especially the show-business leftist: self-referential narcissism, the unquestioned belief that, in the end, it really is all about me and my peculiar obsessions (which I mistakenly assume to be universal).
To sum up, the message conveyed to Chinese visitors by the US pavilion was the following: "welcome, from some random not-very-bright people"; "welcome again, from some politicians"; and finally, "America pretty much sucks, but after a long, frustrating struggle, you might be able to slightly improve one small area of your neighborhood."
Not exactly "the land of the free and the home of the brave"!
What were the common threads in this stunning air-ball of public diplomacy? Politically correct self-loathing; a large dollop of plain old ineptitude; and a superficial, self-referential multiculturalism which was totally indifferent to the actual characteristics and interests of local people.
The real tragedy is that, as unwelcome as this suggestion is to the left, the U.S. actually does have a lot to be proud of. Here's a small -- very small -- sampling of what the pavilion could have shown to the people of China, but didn't:
The pavilion's planners did not consider a single one of the points listed above to be worth bringing to the attention of Chinese visitors. One can begin to account for this astonishing fact by noting that most of the key individuals involved, such as Hillary Clinton and U.S. commissioner general Jose H. Villareal, are Democrats. Now, I will not bash Hillary here -- first, because she's the only one in the Obama administration with any cojones; and second, because if she hadn't stepped in and started shaking the money tree, the pavilion could have turned from merely a lame embarrassment into an outright international incident. Villareal, on the other hand, was the main party responsible for failing to generate content worthy of the U.S. Tellingly, if one looks on the Net for assessments of the U.S. pavilion, one quickly finds that the biggest defender of Villareal's work is Villareal himself, e.g., with a Foreign Policy piece attempting to rebut an earlier takedown of the pavilion by Shanghai-based blogger Adam Minter. Villareal was right about one thing, however: the U.S. has to find a better way to do Expos.
A superficially impressive array of positive assessments of the pavilion can be found on the Net, e.g., on pages like the Wikipedia page for Expo 2010 pavilions, which gives positive feedback from visitors. However, every single such example is compromised by an "observer effect" that the sources seem totally unaware of: Chinese people are culturally programmed not to criticize others openly lest they lose face. Consequently, if an obviously American interviewer, right in front of the U.S. pavilion, asks a Chinese visitor his opinion of it, an honest assessment is very unlikely to be forthcoming. Which was closer to the truth: the rosy picture painted by Villareal, or the grimmer assessment given here? That question was answered definitively on November 3, when a Jiaotong University survey cited by Shanghai Daily revealed that Chinese visitors voted the U.S. pavilion the "most disappointing foreign pavilion at the Expo."
Another left-wing meme on the U.S. pavilion complained that it was "too corporate." In actuality, being "corporate" does not imply a lack of quality -- great company pavilions of the past, like General Motors' Futurama at the 1939 New York World's Fair, have demonstrated that a corporate pavilion can be as entertaining as a country pavilion, or more so. Moreover, inasmuch as the small-scale corporate exhibits near the U.S. pavilion's exit were more interesting than the films, and the separate Coca-Cola pavilion at Expo 2010 was one of the most popular and best-executed pavilions at the event, one could make a good case that the U.S. pavilion wasn't corporate enough. One might also point out that the the spectacle of Democrats like Clinton and Villareal leaning on private businesses to cough up money, which the same Democrats then proceed to grossly misuse, offers a disturbingly accurate microcosm of American society at this point in time.
History will judge the U.S. Expo pavilion as a huge missed opportunity for two reasons. First, a well done pavilion could have helped to ameliorate our chronic trade deficits with China by attracting a generation of mainland Chinese to America's world-class tourist attractions. Second, the Expo represented a rare opportunity to counteract some of the Chinese Communist Party's incessant anti-American propaganda by presenting a positive image of the U.S. to millions of Chinese visitors. Regrettably, the actual pavilion completely failed on both counts: the organizers were trying so hard to be friendly and welcoming that they forgot to say anything positive about America, the likely result being that an entire generation of Chinese tourists will book tickets to Spain instead. As a U.S. expatriate in China, it appalls me that 7 million Chinese people visited this slab of epic fail with high hopes and are now equating it with America itself. Trust me: we're going to regret this one later.
John Parker is the pen name of a journalist.