May 24, 2010

US entry to 2010 Chinese Expo

Yglesias: US Pavilion at Expo 2010 is a National Humiliation
Our group was briefly taken today to visit Shanghai’s Expo 2010, which is kind of like a World’s Fair. The whole concept seems a bit goofy to my eyes, but it’s caused a lot of excitement in China and I think the way you have to understand it is that China’s at a level of economic development where most Chinese people can manage a trip to Shanghai to visit an Expo but don’t have the means to engage in any international travel. So their way of seeing the world is to visit the various national pavilions erected there. And I’m afraid to say that the U.S. pavilion, though hugely popular (visits thus far ranking just slightly below China) really isn’t up to snuff.

Apparently U.S. government funds weren’t appropriated to put the thing together, so the organizers had to raise corporate money. Which is fine, but instead of putting together a real exhibition about the United States and then slapping a nice “thanks to a generous sponsors” panel together, they really only managed to assemble what amounts to a series of advertisements for the U.S. brands who put up the money plus a couple of barely coherent movies. The mightiest nation on earth probably doesn’t need to brag, but it would be nice if one of those films said something—anything—about the actual achievements and history of the country. Instead, we get kids talking about the importance of innovation and a bizarre parable about a group of people coming together to build a community garden.
Ezra Klein chimes in:
Countries put some effort into the Expo: China spent about $50 billion building the infrastructure for the event. Saudi Arabia's pavilion is an elevated oasis complete with palm trees. Switzerland's pavilion is all sleek lines and metal brushstrokes surrounded by a soft netting of maroon spheres. South Korea's effort is an explosion of colors and cubes and contrasts. Britain created a planet of brushed silver and adorned it with more than 60,000 transparent rods. America? Well, we appear to have built a Circuit City.

The inattention to aesthetics might work as a signal of power and wealth, like Bill Gates being rich enough to wear denim when he goes to meet the queen. But then you get to the three videos that make up America's message to the word. Message? We're bad at languages, in hock to corporations, and able to set up gardens when children shame us into doing so.

The first video is six minutes of cute slapstick as Americans try, and fail, to pronounce Chinese words. If the Chinese thought they could overrun the U.S. and get us speaking Mandarin, this video decisively proves that at least half of that project will be difficult. The second video uses messages from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to bookend a long series of advertisements from the pavilion's corporate sponsors, including a representative from Chevron who tells us that oil will have to be part of our energy future and actually uses their marketing buzzwords "human energy." When Obama finishes, the screen dissolves to text thanking Citibank for its sponsorship. For good measure, that video plays in the Citibank room. The third video is an inoffensive parable in which a young girl galvanizes her neighborhood to plant a garden. That video was sponsored by PepsiCo, and shown in the Pfizer room.
He continues:
Citibank's sponsorship of the U.S. pavilion came pretty late in the process. From what I was told, it came when the United States basically needed a few more million at crunch time. That is to say, the donation happened recently. Recently, of course, being during the period of time when the U.S. government was a major shareholder in Citibank. And yet we still called the room "the Citibank room" and we still dissolved President Obama's face into a text screen saying the film was brought to you by Citibank. Maybe this was some subtle message about how we're so capitalist that we'd rather humiliate ourselves than act like we own a company that we do, in fact, largely own, but it's still silly. We couldn't have used our major shareholder status to demand they content themselves with a tasteful plaque?
Apparently it's part of some reporters' trip to China. I've always wanted to visit (like my friend D); maybe I'll get the chance sometime after Peace Corps.

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