A Sorry Spectacle

In Foreign Policy, Adam Minter delves deep into the process by which the U.S. pavilion at the Shanghai Expo was chosen and built:

On May 1, Expo 2010, the largest and most expensive world’s fair in history, will open on 2.5 square miles of prime Shanghai riverbank for a six-month run that its hosts hope will help bolster the city’s global reputation. Although largely overlooked by the American public, Expo 2010 has not been overlooked by the U.S. secretary of state’s office: For more than a year, Hillary Clinton has spent considerable time and effort raising private money to pay for the construction of a U.S. pavilion to showcase American technology, culture, and achievement to the event’s expected 90 million international attendees. Unfortunately, this particular effort at public diplomacy has faltered repeatedly; the behind-the-scenes saga may best be remembered for allegations of nepotism, frictions with the Chinese government and Expo organizers, and a mediocre, uninspiring pavilion design.

…The absence of clarity on just how Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. was chosen has likely had consequences for the U.S. image among Shanghai Expo officials, most of whom are senior Chinese government and Communist Party officials. A senior editor at one state-owned publication in Shanghai, for example, recently told me that “everyone knows Ellen got it because of her family connections.” True or not, this isn’t the image that the U.S. pavilion was supposed to embody. Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. has repeatedly declined to answer my questions about the role of Commerce Department officials in the pavilion authorization process. In a recent, unpublished interview with another reporter, Eliasoph has denied any conflict between her husband’s job and her role with the pavilion.

It wouldn’t matter nearly so much if Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. had performed to the level expected of it by the State Department. But the sad fact is that Eliasoph and Winslow raised almost no money from the time they were awarded the pavilion authorization, missed multiple construction deadlines, and, in the process, alienated large segments of the U.S. business community in Shanghai, as well as numerous Expo officials, according to several individuals in close contact with the Expo authorities and the expat business community. Finally, in the spring of 2009, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, concerned and frustrated by the faltering U.S. effort, were forced to make personal appeals to Clinton to fix the situation. Shortly afterward, she appointed Villarreal, a friend and fundraiser from San Antonio, to take control of the situation as the commisioner general — a position that had been previously unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the State Department’s apparently noncompetitive authorization of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc. means that the group’s architect and design weren’t subject to a competitive review, a highly unusual procedure in selecting any $61 million building, much less one meant to represent the United States abroad (most of the other major Expo 2010 pavilions were selected in competition). The result is a dull, metal-clad, two-wing complex that’s supposed to resemble an eagle. Inside, visitors will be subjected to “4-D” screenings of a film depicting the world of 2030 through the eyes of a Chinese-American woman who visited Expo 2010. This film, no surprise, is produced by longtime acquaintances of Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc.’s Warner Bros. founders.

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