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Fireworks light up the sky during the opening ceremony of the World Expo in Shanghai on April 30, 2010. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
Fireworks light up the sky during the opening ceremony of the World Expo in Shanghai on April 30, 2010. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Expo 2010 confirms how China has moved to world's centre stage Add to ...

The French pavilion will feature works from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and will host "mass weddings." Poland's will have daily Chopin recitals, while Japan will go one better by having robots play the violin. Even Taiwan is here, with a pavilion highlighted by liquid electronic displays and senior politicians in attendance at Friday's opening ceremony.

Twenty heads of state, including Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attended the opening ceremonies. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's deputy, Kim Yong-nam, are both in Shanghai, as are members of the Saudi royal family.

In an age of international acrimony, perhaps only China - with its trade-focused, non-interventionist foreign policy - could draw this many countries to a trade fair. Syria, Belarus and Zimbabwe have pavilions, returning the embrace Beijing gave them after the United States and Europe turned away for them for human-rights abuses and other reasons. In a corner of Expo sure to catch the eye of U.S. diplomats stationed in the city, the pavilions of North Korea, Iran and Lebanon sit side by side by side.

Perhaps most symbolic of Beijing's growing influence in parts of the world the West once held sway over is the joint African pavilion, which hosts 42 countries under one roof. The largest pavilion on the site, the entire tab was picked up by the Chinese government to ensure that as many countries as possible were in attendance.

"China is very important to the whole of the world, and especially to Tanzania and to Africa. China has contributed a lot, first in the decolonization process in Africa, and after they have supported us economically," said Omar Mapuri, Tanzania's ambassador to Beijing. "It's a win-win relationship for both. China is looking for [resources]in Africa, and of course we're looking for [access to]the biggest market in the world."

Critics say the international response is motivated primarily by fear that those who did not attend would suffer in terms of access to the world's largest market. "You've always had to pay the price if you want to do business here. You have to pay tribute to the Emperor," said Paul French, a Shanghai-based writer and consultant. "Governments feel, and I don't think they're wrong about this, that the Chinese would somehow penalize them, as they do whenever a Western leader has a cup of tea with the Dalai Lama."

Canada's pavilion, which has been roundly criticized for a lack of architectural creativity, may prove to be one of the bigger draws with Cirque du Soleil performers on hand, simulated bicycle rides through animated Canadian cityscapes and a restaurant serving poutine and, once it clears customs, Moosehead beer.

But the emphasis, as with all the pavilions, is on increasing economic links to the world's fastest growing economy and its 1.3 billion people. The most important rooms in the Canadian pavilion will likely be the VIP suite sponsored by Montreal's Power Corp., as well as a corporate boardroom built with money from Bombardier Inc.

"I don't think Canada is here because we're intimidated. We're here because it's such a great opportunity," Mr. Rowswell said.

Those least enamoured with China's over-the-top hosting of Expo are Shanghai residents, who have put up with their city's downtown core being turned into a construction site for much of the past eight years and who began griping months ago about the traffic snarls created by the event. Some 18,000 homes were bulldozed to clear the Expo site, angering many who said they were evicted against their will without being properly compensated.

Despite the international nature of Expo, many see the true audience as domestic. To a public angered by rampant official corruption and the widening gap between the country's rich and poor, the message is that the world recognizes how successful the Communist Party has been in guiding the country.

"To the outside world, [the government]wants to show that we're a big power. Domestically, they want to demonstrate that this is an extremely prosperous time," said Zhu Dake, a professor in the institute of cultural criticism at Shanghai's Tongji University. "This can be called the longest carnival in Chinese history."

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