US Pavilion at Expo 2010 is a National Humiliation

By Matthew Yglesias

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.

Crowd at US Pavilion

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.

Most problematic of all, at one point Hillary Clinton appears on screen on says the pavilion will highlight “core American values” and then doesn’t mention democracy or anything resembling democracy. I can see making the decision that you don’t want to try to talk about democracy in China, but if that’s the decision you make then I think you can’t talk about core American values. What’s more, talking about democracy as a core American value actually seems like the most benign way you could talk about it in China. You don’t need to say “democracy is awesome and we plan to use our military might to impose it on the world,” you’re simply saying democracy is crucial to American political culture and debates about political reform in our society almost always take the form of arguments about how to become more democratic. Certainly the Chinese pavilion isn’t shy about promoting the slogan of “harmonious society.”

It also struck me as odd that the videos featured Kobe Bryant as a representative of America, since he seems like one of our least-likable major athletes. I’m told, however, that polls show Kobe is one of the most-beloved Americans in China and apparently that was borne out during the Beijing Olympics.