If official statistics are to be believed, on Friday the 10th of September the 2010 Shanghai “World Expo” surpassed the 50m visitor mark. Admittedly it’s a bit hard to figure out how this could be the case with only 133 days and no more than 360,000 bodies per day, but we’ll not dwell on such details.
If we assume that on average each person endured, say, 2.5 grueling days of waiting in line in 40 degree heat to see “something”, that would imply that 20m people – children, adults and a fair share of elderly, were convinced to visit these 5.28 square kilometers of concrete paradise. I think we can be sure that the number collapsing from heat exhaustion must have been considerable. Frankly, the whole scene struck me as a flashback to pre-1989 Alexanderplatz and Red Square – but with 100x the population. Clearly the Chinese State has learned a few things about marketing.
Yet it seems to me that such “success” can hardly be explained with modern PR insights alone. Rather, its success ultimately depended on one thing: faith in the State. In glaring contrast to the American State, which has now reached a historical nadir of credibility (see note #1), powered by its red-hot printing press the Chinese State has ascended to a new historical high. As touched upon in The Payoff, never before in living memory have so many people possessed the purchasing power to buy so many attractive goods.
And in fact, almost the entire “Expo” is by its very nature a temple to the State, or rather a temple to all the various States which it claims to represent. Each state-sponsored pavilion claims to presents “its” accomplishments, “its” technologies, “its” innovations. And yet: none of those things – if they are innovative or memorable at all – were invented by those “states”. Rather, they were created by people and groups of people – i.e. companies. With the exception of geographic replicas and reproductions, arguably these state temples – towered over by the Chinese National Pavilion of course – are crowning embodiments of today’s dominant religion: the Religion of State.
In a way perhaps it’s rather obvious, but I think it worth pointing out nonetheless: At least in today’s State-centric world, “prosperity” and Faith in the State seem to be intimately linked. To clarify: “Faith in the State” does not necessarily mean a belief that any particular State is “doing a good job”. It refers to the belief that the State is the answer. That the State can and should be resolving “problems” which are perceived to exist. That the State should provide (better) pensions, healthcare, jobs, schools, or inspection of the milk factories. That the State should be “looking out for us” – and could if its leaders only were “good enough”. That is, after all, what almost all of today’s States claim as their raison d’être.
The more people who see their effective disposable incoming rising (and thus implicitly their range of choice in life), the more pervasive seems to be the faith in the State which is allegedly providing this plenty. As the American case illustrates, when real disposable incomes fall drastically over a long period, the opposite is probably equally true. (See note #2.) Interestingly, this Faith in the State seems to transferable: The growing faith in the Chinese State tends to make Chinese believe that all those other States out there – especially those in the idealized West – must be even better. The main reason for emigration remain all those ever-so-attractive pension and medical benefits which Americans, Australians and Canadians look forward to. Such is the Power of Faith.
1) According to polling numbers provided by the Pew Institute satisfaction amongst Americans regarding “the way things are going” fell to 11% in the fall of 2008. The purported 2010 rebound to 29% seems a bit harder to believe. Of course what the Pew survey does NOT address is the faith in the institution of the State itself.
2) A good source for statistics on 70%+ fall in real income levels experienced by Americans in the past 40 years is John Williams’ http://www.shadowstats.com site. Williams’ statistics series seem to match everyday American reality far more accurately than those based on the US Government’s “adjusted” CPI figures.