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Shanghai Expo: Not Just a Site for China’s Image-Construction

Apr 28, 2010

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To characterize the Shanghai Expo as mainly China’s showcasing of its soft power misses an important point.

It is true that China’s hosting of the event, especially on the heels of the spectacular Summer Olympics two years ago, sends an unmistakable signal of the country’s return to global prominence. Nonetheless, the Expo is also a grand stage where, over the next six months, nearly 200 participant countries will be courting and engaging the Chinese public. And this, I believe, will be of far greater significance and consequence for China, and the world, in the long run.

There are very few mega-events that can grab any global attention. One may count the Olympics, the World Cup, The Oscars, and perhaps the World Expo. But unlike the others, the Expo is not a media event. It is best experienced in person, not much different from visiting an amusement park. The half-year-long event doesn’t make for good television; neither does it lend itself well (at least so far) to presentation in any forms of the new, interactive media. So, the Expo’s global reach and influence will be limited in comparison.

But the bigger story will be in China and inside the Expo Park. According to the official estimate, the Expo will attract some 70 million visitors (only 5% of which will be from outside China). That is, 5% of the Chinese population will be visiting the Expo―more than the entire population of France.

I toured the Expo Park earlier this month. The structures and designs of many of the national pavilions are certainly eye-catching. If there is any gravitational pull of China’s soft power, it is that the entire world is represented in the park. What’s more, participant countries seem to take the event seriously; thereby giving a great deal of face to their host.

The prospect of China being a major global power depends as much on how the Chinese will come to view what’s beyond the Middle Kingdom as on the modes of response other countries will choose to deal with its rise. As Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, has pointed out, the Chinese attitude toward difference will be a crucial factor in determining the outcome.

As the Shanghai Expo brings the world to China’s door-step, Chinese visitors will have an opportunity to sample the sights and sounds of varied cultures and innovations.

Granted, what these national pavilions present are idealized, dramatized visions of their respective countries; still, this is a good start for dialogue, and for a rapidly growing China and the world to ponder a fruitful relationship going forward.


To find out more about Jay Wang's CPD research project: Nation Branding at Expo Shanghai 2010, click here.

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I'm not so sure about the

I'm not so sure about the value of pavilions at Shanghai Expo and similar events, especially for the smaller and poorer countries who can ill afford the gigantic costs of participating.

Let me explain my doubts with a metaphor.

The best way to make sure that nobody notices you is by camouflaging yourself. Camouflage is about making yourself indistinguishable from the surrounding environment. So, if you want to be invisible, dress up like a tree and hide in a forest. If you want to make your country invisible, dress it up as a pavilion and hide it in a forest of pavilions - a World Expo, in other words.

If you want to be quite sure that nobody notices what you're doing, do exactly what everyone else does.

Rich countries like Germany and America and Japan can afford pavilions that might just be noticed because they are much bigger than anyone else's. They are still wasting their money, because Germany and America are already famous, and a huge pavilion is exactly what people are expecting from them anyway. But because they can afford to throw away the money, it doesn't really matter.

Poorer countries should save their money. The vast majority of people visiting the Shanghai Expo are Chinese schoolchildren anyway, and unless your target audience is Chinese schoolchildren, the exercise is not only ineffectual but also misguided.

Marketing is about making sure that everybody notices you, so it's the opposite of camouflage. In other words, avoid doing the same thing that everyone else is doing.

What kind of things really make a difference to the profile and reputation of a country? The things a country does, not the things it says about itself. A reputation can only be earned, it cannot be constructed through these kinds of marketing and 'branding' exercises.

If a country wants to be well-known and admired, it needs to focus on creating great products and services, and exporting them around the world; it needs to create great tourist destinations and promote them powerfully and effectively; it needs to engage in high quality cultural and political relations with many other countries; it needs to produce a steady stream of remarkable individuals in every field who make their names in other countries; it needs to be prosperous, stable and well-governed. Above all, it has to make a significant contribution to the issues that really matter to people in other countries - climate change, poverty, war, violent extremism, women's and children's rights, education, religious and ethnic differences, drugs, intolerance, pollution, economic crisis - the list could go on for pages, but the message is a simple one: if you want people to think positively about your country, you need to ask what you can do for them, and do it. Attempting to promote your country is simply a waste of taxpayers' money and achieves nothing.