The Fog in Beijing

Connor O’Brien takes in nationalistic wonders and airborne toxins at Shanghai’s Expo 2010 — the largest World’s Fair ever held.

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When the sun sets in Beijing, it can turn the violent crimson of fresh-spilled blood. Light comes scattered through a haze of fine particles, or particulates, which can cause inexplicable and often beautiful chromatic distortions, but usually act as a translucent barrier between earth and sky. Beijingers call it “The Fog,” as though the city perpetually rests on the precipice of a shutter-thwacking storm.

The Chinese government’s official air quality index is notoriously lax, leading the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to publish an hourly reading on Twitter (@BeijingAir) with an emphasis on the tiny particulates — smaller than 2.5 micrometers — that are known to cause respiratory problems. While I am in the city, the PM2.5 measure rarely drops below “Very Unhealthy,” just one level below “Hazardous.”

Every large Chinese city has The Fog. One afternoon, in mid-July, a billowing black cloud eats up the Shanghai skyline, sits there for half an hour, then dissipates. To exercise outside at this time — to, say, go jogging — becomes a choking hazard. Photographs of Chongqing tend to have the look of bad impressionist works from a distance, the horizon flecked and smudged with the heavy breathing of industry.

I’m in China to attend Shanghai’s Expo 2010, likely to become — by a sizable margin — the largest World’s Fair ever held. Spread over five square kilometers of prime, smack-bang-middle-of-the-city waterfront property (18,000 families were relocated in preparation for the event), the Expo drew over 450,000 visitors the day I attended, most hailing from distant Chinese provinces. As I’m waiting in line, a local points to the huge number of “disabled” Chinese who are being sped through a special entrance and whispers that they’re mostly faking. If you arrive at the Expo in a wheelchair, you’re entitled to jump the queues.

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Over six months, organizers tell me they expect 75 million tickets to be sold, maybe as many as a hundred million. As a point of comparison, Disneyland averages a tenth of those figures over the same timespan.

Expo 2010 promotional materials brand the event as a “grand gathering of the world cultures.” Of course, that’s sugar-coating it. It might be more accurate to understand the Expo as a kind of naff global nightclub, each country tarting up, peacocking, in a thoroughly transparent bid at seducing would-be tourists and foreign investors.

Lyndall, a 10% genial, 90% no-nonsense woman who speaks in a refined Strine, directs us through the Australia pavilion. “Pavilion,” here, is a misnomer: the imposing $83 million structure houses a 1,000-seat theater, banquet hall, food court, and a 160-meter-long walk-through diorama, in which the defining events of Australian history are depicted by way of cartoon figures in the style of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World. The entire experience is the epitome of camp — a deliberate reduction of Australian culture to a variety of colorful, hollow, and non-threatening images: nondescript didgeridoos protrude from the floor, a Bob Hawke doll rushes a grotesquely disfigured sheep, and, in a full-wall photomontage, surfer Layne Beachley is depicted larger-than-life as the country’s greatest contemporary cultural export. At the end of the walkway, visitors are herded into the theater for a final ten minute audio-visual extravaganza: six meter-high convex video screens rise from the floor and begin to whirl around the stage, with speakers blaring the chant “building better life, building better life” to fast-changing images of deserts and beaches, mountains and cities.

As the lights brighten, visitors rush along, jostling, pointing, and snapping photographs (I get asked for my picture twice in five minutes). Fundamentally, the idea is to race through each pavilion as quickly as possible in order to reach a desk by the exit, at which point a staff member will stamp your official Expo 2010 souvenir passport. With over a hundred national pavilions scattered around the grounds, and with hour-long queues for entry to some pavilions, a gray market passport completion “service” has emerged, with fully stamped passports selling for 420 Yuan ($70) on Chinese auction sites. In the provinces, I’m told, to possess a completed passport has become quite the talking point.

For lower-income Chinese, the Expo represents a good-enough substitute for international travel. For these attendees, visiting the Australia pavilion will come to be remembered fondly as their “Australian holiday.” The New Zealand pavilion goes a step further in offering the complete 2,000-square-meter travel experience: on the sloping roof of their pavilion, a South Island forest has been constructed, replete with hot springs and “flowering” New Zealand flora. (The flowers are plastic, but have been stuck to the branches of actual imported New Zealand natives).

The Expo is an imagined utopia in which every country can exist as it wishes to exist, unburdened by the imperfections of reality or the failures of history. Indonesia projects itself as an environmental Eden (the world’s “Cradle of Biodiversity”), with LCD screens planting visitors underwater, in the midst of an ocean teeming with sea life — while, several thousand kilometers away, rapid industrialization and population pressures push the country to the point of ecological collapse.

The walls of the South Africa pavilion are plastered with generic photographs of hard-working scientists and smiling multicultural faces, matched with the symbolically drained buzzwords “discover,” “experience,” and “explore” — no mention, of course, of the half-million rapes committed annually in the country, perennial xenophobia, income inequality, or mass unemployment.

San Marino, a landlocked European mountain nation with a population of only 30,000, can, within the confines of the bizarro world of the Expo, reconstruct itself, albeit sloppily, as a true world power. Third World nations, meanwhile, construct grand pavilions for the sake of proving a point: “We just spent a hundred million here, and you still think we’re poor?”

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Cutting right on through these constructed paradises, though, is The Fog. From one end of the grounds, pavilions in the far distance retreat into a cloudy half-existence. By its very nature, The Fog comes to represent everything the Chinese government can’t cover up: a developing nation in denial, blundering and stretched to capacity. You can move the factories and power plants out of sight, erect security fences around the sweatshops, but The Fog will drift. In the lead-up to the Expo, the Chinese government attempted to “clean up” Shanghai, just as they scrambled to prettify Beijing in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Running under the slogan “Be Civilized for the Expo,” Shanghainese were discouraged from wearing pajamas in the streets; street markets were shut down, or relocated; new subway lines were opened; and city night lights almost uniformly replaced for added bang. Police presence was boosted, with old cops returning from retirement to once again patrol the streets. The Expo is all about nation branding, and the Chinese realize that Shanghai is, in a sense, their pavilion — a marketing space in which to shape the outsider’s understanding of the possibilities “New China” might represent.

The presence of The Fog, however, hovering above Shanghai — and, by extension, above every pavilion, smothering attendees — pushes the entire Expo into farce: a billion dollar exercise in covering shit up. The fact is that every country has its own Fog: ‘Fog’, here, coming to stand for those particularly irrepressible, unpalatable truths that can be actively disregarded but will never simply blow away. We are defined as much by who we are as by what we don’t want to admit to ourselves or to the world. Are Expo visitors really so naïve as to believe that the fullness of any culture can be reduced to a marionette show, several choice catch-phrases, and some outrageous pyrotechnics? Or is there an understanding that Australia and New Zealand and Indonesia — in fact, every one of the hundred-plus countries involved in the Expo — are infinitely more complex that their pavilions might allow us to recognize?

In the space of a minute, I feel the heat of a thousand provincial Chinese as they jostle around me — into me — on their way to ‘The Hedgehog’, Britain’s spectacular spiked pavilion. The children point and grin, their adult hangers-on similarly entranced, and I suddenly get the feeling that I’ve understood this all wrong. For a vast number of Expo-goers, this experience will come to represent ‘The World As It Is’ — and who the hell am I to tell them what’s out there isn’t all wine and roses?

I feel like a cynic in Eden. Everything’s perfect, all glittering lights, plastic trees, and invisible birds singing sweetly from high fidelity speakers, and here I am, grumbling, preoccupied with the symbolic implications of Fog? Suddenly, I’m overcome with the urge to purchase a deluxe Expo passport and nab a spare wheelchair. If I’m trapped in a synthetic, hyperreal po-mo paradise for the day, I consider, I may as well traverse it in style.

Connor O'Brien studies Creative Writing at an Australian university. At the office of the magazine he works for, an entire wall is dedicated to a collage of hate mail addressed to him personally. He believes this means he must be doing something right. Thus far, however, the nutters haven't found his blog.