few days ago I arrived in Shanghai and took a taxi from Hongqiao airport to Fuxing Park in the centre of the city. It was
a horrible journey of more than an hour that cost a hefty 110 yuan. Previously, the most I’d paid for the same
trip was about 80 yuan. “Sorry,” said the driver, “It’s the Expo”.
This is the
first time that the Expo has bee granted to China. Since its inception in 1851 – when the inaugural event, “The
Great Exhibition (of the Works of Industry of All Nations)”, was held in London – the Expo has been to Asia only
on four occasions (Japan, three times; and once in South Korea). So, there is a palpable sense here in China that this
is a hugely important event that further signifies (less than two years after the Beijing Olympics) that China has taken its
rightful place not only on the world stage, but at the very centre of it.
Expo 2010 has been the ongoing “big
story” here since, funnily enough, the closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The millions of local column
inches devoted to the Expo have prompted tens of millions of Chinese to set their sights on coming to Shanghai to see it for
themselves. Add to those tens of millions a significant number of foreign visitors and you arrive at the official visitor
projection for the six-month extravaganza: a cool 70 million people (an average of about 380 thousand each day).
While it would
be tempting for people struggling to get around Shanghai this summer to blame their travel difficulties on the Expo, the truth
of the matter is that – other than the area adjacent to the venue – Expo visitors (the majority of whom will be
taking public transport) are not likely to add much more misery to the “normally” (ie Expo-less) woeful traffic
situation in Shanghai.
Traffic congestion because
of “sheer weight of traffic” is, increasingly, a fact of life in Shanghai, as it is in every Chinese city.
It’s simply part of the price to pay for the staggering economic development that has made car ownership an attainable
aspiration for more than 100 million people (China overtook the US last year to become the world’s biggest auto market,
with 10.3 million passenger cars sold – 53 per cent more than the previous year.)
So, if it’s
not the Expo-visitors’ fault, then just who is to blame for the horrendous traffic around Shanghai during the past few
days? On my (tortuous) way back to the airport I stopped off at the gates of the Xijiao guesthouse to find out.
been a regular visitor to Xijiao – which has the best woodland and lake in Shanghai – for more than a dozen years.
It really is a pleasure to walk around the miles of little paths and to quietly sit in one of the small pavilions –
only a mile or so from the hustle and bustle of Hongxu Lu, but a million miles away from the sometimes quite-maddening crowd
(the grounds are private and the high walls and tight security ensure that the only people I usually see there are gardeners).
On a visit to Shanghai two weeks ago, though, I discovered that the gardeners were not the only people in uniforms. Armed
guards from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were positioned on strategic bridges and pathways. They prevented
me from getting to the western half of the oasis, but I was still able to enjoy a pleasant stroll around the eastern side
following a very nice pizza at the Guesthouse’s coffee-shop (you can’t buy tickets to get into Xijiao, but a visit
to the restaurant provides de facto access to the gardens and lake – a one day “pizza pass” as it were).
But, earlier today, I realised that security was on a completely different level. No amount
of pleading was going to get me past the PLA captain on the front gate and his “No entry, refurbishment in progress”
sign. This was not a surprise, of course, because today is the official opening ceremony of the Expo and the Chinese
president, Hu Jintao, and dozens of other heads of state and dignitaries are in town for the event.
From the Chinese government’s perspective, if you’re important,
then you just simply have to be on the Xijiao guest list. Mao Zedong started the fashion by staying there 49 years ago
(in 1961). Since then more than a 100 heads of states have been guests there – including Queen Elizabeth and Prince
Philip in October 1986; President George “W” Bush, in October 2001; and President Obama in November last year.
days, though, even the most prestigious of establishments have to have an eye for commercial opportunities that can offset
maintenance costs (which, in the case of Xijiao include the staffing costs of an army of gardeners). As well as offering
one of the best pizzas in Shanghai to anyone who wanders in off the street, the venue has also hosted “branded events”
since at least as far back as 2004, when Shanghai Tang hired the south lawn for a Champagne reception, followed by the “runway”
launch of its autumn “nomad” fashion collection. Liu Xiang, who had just returned triumphantly to China
following his 100 metres hurdles’ gold medal success at the Athens’ Olympics was one of the well-heeled guests
Talking of hurdles, with so many state leaders
here for the Expo launch, and therefore so many cavalcades whizzing around town on cleared roads (which are closed for several
minutes before the arrival of the motorcade), it’s not surprising that getting around town has been painfully slow.
I don’t want to rain on tonight’s parade, but I think it’s only fair to say that “Better City, Better
Life”, the Shanghai Expo’s official theme, should have come with an “Except when you can’t get a pizza
at Xijiao” caveat.