Shanghai prepares for World Expo extravaganza

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The Independent Online

Shanghai opens the World Expo this weekend, with 192 countries taking part in the massive six-month showcase of ideas and technology - the latest display of China's growing global clout.

China's most cosmopolitan city will kick things off on Friday night with fireworks and an opening extravaganza at the riverfront Expo site in the city centre, a day before visitors are allowed in.

Nations ranging from the United States to North Korea have built dazzling pavilions displaying their history, culture and achievements in a park that China says will see up to 100 million visitors - most of them Chinese.

Still basking in the glow of its successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China is treating the Expo as an equally important display of its ability to organise an event on a massive scale.

Shanghai has reportedly poured 400 billion yuan (58 billion dollars) into infrastructure ahead of the Expo - more than was spent on Beijing's Olympic transformation.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, South Korea's Lee Myung-Bak and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will be among leaders attending Friday night's ceremony, put on by an international team of producers.

Once under way, participating countries will vie to outdo each other in presenting the best they have to offer the world - with a particular eye on China's massive market of 1.3 billion people.

Denmark has made a splash by bringing its "Little Mermaid" statue out of Copenhagen for the first time, France has impressionist paintings and Rodin sculptures, while Italy is showing works by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

India is bringing a cast of Bollywood stars, Canada's pavilion will bear the imaginative touches of Cirque du Soleil and Japan will show off violin-playing robots.

Tenor Andrea Bocelli, hip-hop star K'naan and jazz legend Herbie Hancock will be among the world-class music stars entertaining visitors.

"The Olympics was China putting on a show for the world. With Expo, the world is coming to Shanghai to put on a show for China," said Mark Rowswell, the Canadian pavilion's commissioner general.

"We haven't seen an Expo like this in decades," said Rowswell, famous in China for his fluent Mandarin and more than two decades on television.

For many, the spotlight will be on the cutting-edge architecture of national pavilions at the 5.3-square-kilometre (two-square-mile) site.

Highlights include China's red inverted pyramid, Britain's stunning dandelion-like "Seed Cathedral", Spain's "Big Basket" made of 8,500 wicker panels, and Switzerland's three-story-high "meadow" - complete with chairlift.

"All around us are extraordinary structures and so many people were egged on by each other to do something. I think visitors are going to have quite an amazing time," said Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the British pavilion.

Behind the scenes, multinational companies and trade officials will network in VIP rooms to build the business and government connections - or "guanxi" - crucial to success in China.

Britain aims to translate the attention its pavilion attracts into more than 1,000 meetings between Chinese and British business leaders. Australian and Canadian corporations are flying in board members for key talks.

The Expo's theme is "Better city, better life," and presentations on that idea will range from Denmark encouraging visitors to ride bicycles through its spiraling white pavilion, to the Chinese venue's celebration of the host country's massive and ongoing urban construction boom.

In line with the theme, Shanghai has spruced up the art deco and neo-classical Bund - the strip of historic riverfront buildings dating from a time when foreign powers dominated the city.

Hundreds of kilometres (miles) of metro lines were added and new terminals were built at its domestic and international airports.

In typical fashion, China's control-conscious leaders have ramped up security to ensure nothing spoils the party, deploying paramilitary police, randomly checking foreigners' identification and searching car and rail passengers entering and leaving the city, among other steps.

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