After years under the omnipresent and unremittingly smiling gaze of its blue mascot, Haibao, Shanghai is finally free of the World Expo. The event, the most attended in Expo history, had a rocky start that led to widespread questions of whether it would be a success. It quickly became clear that these questions were meaningless: Too much money and too much honor was at stake for it to be considered, officially, anything less than a home run.
Visitor reactions were more mixed. "I came to the Expo filled with hope, and now I’m filled with disappointment," said one attendee, who flew in from Hong Kong. Lines that frequently lasted over six hours at several popular pavilions stretched the patience of attendees.
Over the course of six months, however, most complaints gave way to the realization that the Expo was succeeding not just on the government’s terms, but as a public event. It may not have had the international draw of the Olympics, but that did not diminish its importance as a business and diplomatic phenomenon: Witness the contortions that US government and business went through to pull together an American pavilion and avoid diplomatic incident.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was convinced enough that he proposed hosting the 2020 fair in Silicon Valley. And after the successful rescue of miners in Chile, that country chose to display the prototype of its rescue capsule not at home, but at its pavilion in Shanghai.
For the tens of millions of domestic visitors that comprised the vast majority of Expo attendees, the event was an important act of national self-affirmation. It was also a rare opportunity to experience countries that most will never have a chance to visit – though this occasionally devolved into farce as visits turned into mere scrambles to collect pavilion stamps.
It could be argued that the Expo did little to advance its theme of "Better City, Better Life" beyond accelerating already-planned infrastructure projects in Shanghai. Maybe. It certainly had a minimal impact on the rest of the country – even in Shanghai, Haibao aside, it was sometimes possible to forget the Expo was going on.
As a symbol of a rising and increasingly urban China, however, it was an unqualified success. The country’s challenge now is to move beyond just mascots, symbols and slogans, and build the cities and institutions that its people deserve.