Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Monday, 23 March 2009

Economic woes impact World Expo

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Shanghai

Official mascot of the World Expo in Shanghai
The economic downturn makes finding sponsorship difficult

Chinese officials insist next year's World Expo in Shanghai has enough sponsorship and enough participants to be a success, despite the pressures of the current worldwide economic crisis.

Some 232 countries and organisations have signed up to take part in the technology and innovation showcase, although several have scaled back their plans.

With just over 400 days to go until the exhibition opens, the United States has yet to confirm its attendance because it's struggling to find the money to build its pavilion.

It has been widely reported that US law prohibits the use of public money to build an Expo pavilion.

The Chinese appear to have accepted this explanation as to why it's proving hard to raise the cash needed from other sources.

But that assertion is challenged by a group of Americans who describe themselves as 'Expo veterans' who are one of three teams attempting to create a US pavilion.

Group member Bob Anderson insists that whereas a law passed in 1991 forbids the State Department from funding Expo activities, it does allow the department to use public money from other government agencies to build a pavilion.

He's critical of the plans being developed for a pavilion by the team backed by the State Department, describing their plans as "mundane and out of date with current realities, and very expensive".

He says his group and another team made up of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai are seeking to work with the 'official' team to come up with something cheaper and more striking.

Not so grand designs

Governments around the world are trying to raise enough cash to build pavilions to showcase their countries.

But this isn't a good time to be asking sponsors to give you money.

Zhou Jun, the Chinese official in charge of negotiations with participants, acknowledges the worldwide financial turmoil is forcing some countries to rethink what is achievable and scale back their grand designs.

Countries might end up using less expensive materials but what is important is how you are going to showcase inside the pavilion
Zhou Jun, World Expo official

"Because of the impact of the financial crisis and the economic recession at the moment we naturally lack the money to do more, as far as construction is concerned," he says.

Mr Zhou insists though that if some of the more elaborate plans for pavilions have been discarded, that won't matter for visitors.

"Countries might end up using less expensive materials but what is important is how you are going to showcase inside the pavilion, not what's outside."

China, like the hosts of earlier World Expos, is providing funds to help poorer countries put together their exhibits. Around half of the participants qualify for financial assistance.

World Expo site in Shanghai
Around half of the participants qualify for financial assistance from China

The US cannot get a grant from the fund under the current rules, although some of the private companies that have approached the organisers looking for sponsorship opportunities are being urged to consider supporting the US plans, according to Chinese officials.

Zhu Yonglei, the Deputy Director General of the Expo, insists that overall the sponsorship for the event is in place.

"There will be 40 self-built national pavilions," he promises.

"Construction is under way on almost 10 of them," he says. "The rest will get started in the next two to three months."

The site itself, next to the river that weaves its way through the centre of Shanghai, is beginning to take shape.

No back-up plan

The Chinese are doing their best to remain positive about what looks likely to be a more muted exhibition than they might perhaps had envisaged when they first started planning.

Chinese pavilion under construction at the World Expo site
The Chinese pavilion is the only major structure that is well under way

There is still a lot to do though. At a briefing with journalists to get the message out, they highlighted that even Iceland, a country that has suffered more than most from the financial meltdown, has confirmed it will attend and signed on the dotted line.

The Chinese pavilion is the only major structure that is well under way at the site.

Officials insist that as all the other national pavilions will be temporary structures - they will be torn down at the end of the exhibition - they won't take long to build.

They also claim that the financial crisis has in fact had some benefits. The costs of construction have fallen as the cost of raw materials has fallen, and labour has become cheaper.

The US has until May to sign a contract with the Expo organisers.

The US has missed World Expo before, but a failure to attend next year's event would be seen as a major snub by many Chinese.

If this happens again, one official admitted privately as we looked at the empty patch of ground where the US pavilion is due to be built, the Chinese do have a back-up plan.

"We'll just put something else there," he says with a grin.

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