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February 3, 2010

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Stunning rags-to-riches tale

AS spectacular as World Expo 2010 Shanghai promises to be and as vital the vision of bringing diverse cultures and people together to celebrate a shared future, what is equally remarkable is how fitting it has become that China is the national venue for this global event.

When China first reported its plans to host World Expo 2010 in Shanghai to the Bureau of International Exhibitors in 2003, everyone was expecting China to mount a magnificent show, but no one could have predicted its real-world importance. The severe financial crisis and worldwide recession of 2008-09, the worst since the Great Depression, put paid to the old order and accelerated China's emergence as a leading nation of the world. China's leaders might have preferred another 15 or 20 years of diplomatic quietude so that they could focus on maintaining China's domestic development and on ameliorating China's entrenched problems (especially economic and social imbalances), but international happenstance intervened.

By playing an outsized role in leading the world out of the recession, and by maintaining national stability, China has found itself shouldering enhanced international responsibility, working with other nations to secure global peace, security and stability, and to promote global growth, progress and prosperity.

From trade, business and finance to diplomacy, defense and security; from science, technology and innovation to culture, media and sports - China's growing strengths have global implications. World Expo 2010 Shanghai exemplifies China's emergence, and foreigners who seek to understand China and to assess China's position in the world, can do no better than to visit.

"Better City, Better Life" is Shanghai's vision of a grand future, where human diversity is celebrated, not a cause of conflict; where cross-cultural communication leads to common understanding; and where the city of Shanghai itself signals to the world what astounding progress can be made when there is will to succeed and a willingness to change.

When I was writing "The Man Who Changed China; The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin," the first biography of a living Chinese leader published on the Chinese mainland, I naturally focused on Shanghai, where President Jiang spent much of his youth and early career and later became mayor and Party secretary (1985-89). In the early 20th century, Shanghai was the most prosperous metropolis in Asia, with a vibrant international community and the center of finance and trade.

Slow progress

Shanghai was known as the Pearl of the Orient, the Paris of China, and was a paradise for risk-takers. By the 1980s, however, Shanghai had fallen on hard times. From the loathsome Japanese invasion and fratricidal civil war to the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), events seemed to conspire to turn the formerly dynamic, elegant city into an isolated, dilapidated relic.

Even after Deng Xiaoping began his reforms in 1978, progress was slow. While other areas, particularly south China's Guangdong Province, were developing with remarkable speed, Shanghai was said to be like a "heavily loaded cart pulled by an old cow." Its growth rate in the 1980-1983 period was barely half that of the country's. Many senior leaders, including Deng, involved themselves personally in plans to resurrect the city. On a trip in the spring of 1984, Deng stopped in Shanghai after inspecting Shenzhen and found the contrast between the two places stunning.

Before reform, Shenzhen had been a shantytown; now it was a vigorous, burgeoning metropolis. In contrast, the infrastructure of once-proud Shanghai could not even support the needs of its own people. Deng went after city officials. "I come to Shanghai every year," he said. "What I see is always the same. Can't you move faster? Next time I come, I expect to see major changes!"

Shanghai's transformation began under Mayors Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji and accelerated dramatically during President Jiang's administration (1989-2002). The development of Pudong is an unprecedented success story of visionary planning and intense commitment. Shanghai regained its long-dormant role of a "dragonhead' of economic growth, catalyzing the entire Yangtze River area, including Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces into one of the great economic centers of the world - with more than 80 million people and a GDP the size of France's.

Under President Hu Jintao, Shanghai set forth a new vision, focusing on the "Four Centers" strategy, through which Shanghai is becoming an international center, a world leader, in finance, shipping, trade and economy. The goal is to complete Shanghai's transformation by 2020, with Shanghai becoming a "modern cosmopolitan city," and surely one of the leading cities of the world.

World Expo 2010, a global village set in Shanghai, is more than a world's fair. It is a window through which one can see the future as envisioned by China's leaders - a multi-polar world with all people cooperating and sharing. In my recent book, "How China's Leaders Think," which is centered on candid discussions with over 100 officials, I present the philosophies and policies of President Hu and the new (fifth) generation of Chinese leaders. These in-depth conversations invite readers to question the relevance of the so-called "China threat" and to consider the validity of an emerging "China model." To assess these competing claims, come to World Expo 2010 Shanghai and judge for yourself.

The speed of China's changing relationship with the international community is itself remarkable, a change exemplified by the Expo. The best way to know China - the best way to do business with China - is to know what motivates China's leaders and what drives their policies. And the place that best portrays the vision of how China's leaders see the future of China in the 21st century is World Expo 2010 Shanghai.


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