SHANGHAI To celebrate its emergence as a global power, China is throwing a party the largest-ever world expo, a six-month extravaganza that kicked off Saturday with hundreds of thousands visitors.
While many in the West view world fairs as overblown trade shows, China sees the Shanghai World Expo as a way to burnish its image by mobilizing its masses and vast resources to create another jaw-dropping spectacle on the heels of the Beijing Olympics two years ago.
President Hu Jintao presided at an opening ceremony Friday night at the expo's saucerlike cultural center that featured stars such as Jackie Chan. Hours later on Saturday morning, the gates opened to hundreds of thousands of Chinese eager to celebrate the country's new global prominence.
"It's a big stage for China, Shanghai and the citizens," said Lu Ye, a 47-year-old engineer. He reveled in his good fortune to have tickets to attend the event with three generations of his family.
The expo grounds were designed to accommodate up to 600,000 visitors a day, and the lines of people waiting as long as four hours to get into prime venues, such as the USA Pavilion, made it look like there were few no-shows on opening day.
China's adept organizing skills from providing plenty of benches for tired visitors to installing 11,000 pristine public toilets impressed many foreigners. "There is order in the chaos," said Sara-Kate Astrove, a 21-year-old Tufts University student volunteering at the USA Pavilion.
The significance China attached to the expo can be measured by the vast sums it spent in preparation. No official tally has been disclosed but local media put the total costs at $58 billion, substantially more than the estimated $42 billion spent on the Beijing Olympics.
"This is the message: 'No one can do this but China and we are the future,' '' said Debby Cheung, group managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations in China.
In all, some 70 million people are expected to march across the sprawling site dotted with pavilions from more than 200 countries and international organizations.
"This expo is the largest gathering of humanity in the history of mankind," said Anthony Elvey, who is overseeing Cisco Systems' expo participation. The giant San Jose networking equipment maker, which hopes to get billions of dollars of business in China, is a major corporate sponsor of the fair. The expo's theme, "Better City, Better Life," fits nicely with the company's marketing campaign that its technology can dramatically improve the delivery of services, from health care to traffic management.
In recent decades, world expos have drawn relatively little attention. At the last one, held five years ago in Aichi, Japan, interest among American corporations was so low that the United States pavilion was sponsored by Toyota. Under U.S. law, public money can't be used to fund the project.
This time around, though, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cajoled U.S. companies to cough up donations to fund a $61 million, 60,000-square-foot pavilion and prevent an international tiff with China, which made it clear anything less than a robust American showing would be viewed as an insult.
"You didn't have a choice not to attend this thing," said Adam Minter, a Shanghai writer who has blogged extensively on the expo. "This is how China has done business for thousands of years: If you are a foreign country, you come, you bring your treasures, you kowtow."
More countries have come bearing pavilions to the Shanghai Expo than to any expo in history. Israel built its first-ever pavilion. Japan spent $133 million on its exhibit, "Purple Silkworm Island." To ensure maximum attendance, China set up a $100 million fund to cover the costs of developing countries, including many from Africa.
For Saturday's opening, a host of world leaders were scheduled to be on hand, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and European Union Commission President Josť Manuel Barroso.
The expo comes during a period of rising tensions between China and the United States. Though frictions have eased in recent weeks, major disputes remain, including pressure from the United States for China to increase the valuation of its currency.
Even American corporations, including many from Silicon Valley, that rarely criticize China for fear of being shut out of its rapidly growing market, are chaffing against regulatory changes in China that they say tilt the field in favor of local companies.
Google's decision to stop censoring its searches in China prompted the government to block much of the Mountain View company's services, which only caused more irritation between the U.S. and Chinese leaders.
"There are two major news streams about China: The positive news is about China's financial story. And the other is of an autocratic society and human rights violations," said Kenneth DeWoskin, a Deloitte senior adviser based in China. "The Shanghai Expo is meant to build a more positive image of China around the world."
It is also aimed at local Chinese, many of whom still marvel at the country's quick rise.
"This is the first time China has had an expo," said Yi Liang, co-founder of a mobile-phone technology company in Shanghai. Just 20 years ago, he added, it would have been unthinkable that China would host such an event.
There has been grumbling about the traffic tie-ups caused by two years of construction. Some have criticized the expo mascot Hai Bao because they believed it looked too much like Gumby. And popular Shanghai blogger Han Han poked fun at expo boosterism: "It's sort of like when a domestic clothing brand is very hot and heavily advertised," he wrote. "But when you go abroad and ask around you discover it's actually a second-rate brand."
Rising above all expo buildings is the Chinese pavilion, a $220 million edifice called the "Oriental Crown" and painted in the same red hue as the Forbidden City. The 206-foot-high pavilion features four pillars supporting six floors that expand horizontally with each ascending floor like an inverted pyramid. No other country was allowed to have an expo footprint remotely close in size.
Other pavilions make up for their smaller size with dazzling designs. Finland's structure looks like an ark. Britain's pavilion is a giant cube made from more than 60,000 acrylic rods containing seeds of different plants. Latvia built a glittering box. Canada's pavilion, designed by Cirque du Soleil, looks like a lumpy wood carving. Denmark showed deference by sending to Shanghai its popular "Little Mermaid" statue, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale the first time it has been taken abroad.
America's pavilion, sponsored in part by Intel and resembling a modern Silicon Valley office building, is unlikely to win any design awards. Nonetheless, polls among the Chinese indicate it will be the most frequently visited pavilion after China's imposing structure. The Americans expect to draw 6 million visitors to view a Hollywood-produced "4-D" spectacle underscoring America's innovation and diversity.
"We all understand the importance of the relationship with China," said Greg Lombardo, director of BRC Imagination Arts, the Burbank company producing the U.S. pavilion. "It's an amazing opportunity to tell America's story. People still have a love affair with America."
Although the vast majority of attendees will be Chinese, the country is going out of its way to warmly welcome foreigners. Even workers running airport-like security checks at the expo gates are friendly.
"You see the beauty coming out," said Gugu Mbongwa, a South African attending the expo. "You see the good part of China."