China 'Shanghaied local workers to ensure Expo broke visitor records'

When Shanghai city officials promised the biggest World Expo ever, it was not idle boasting, as Tao Renran and 60 colleagues at a state-run garment factory found out recently when they were asked to visit this year's Shanghai World Expo.

That odd request, they said, quickly became a threat. "We were required to come, otherwise, they said, they would cut our wages," Ms Tao, 46, said last week, after travelling eight hours by bus to get a one-day glimpse of the Expo.

Ms Tao and her fellow workers had lots of company.

According to tourism experts, state employees and government bureaucrats from virtually every part of the nation were ordered to pile on to buses, trains and planes and head to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, this year's singular national event, which ended on Sunday.

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State-run tourist agencies had travel quotas, and state companies handed out free vouchers for a one-day visit in an effort to boost the numbers.

"I'm in charge of encouraging 5,000 workers to get on this Expo trip organised by our company," Chen Hao, 23, deputy chief of the labour union at a state-run steel mill in Shanxi Province in northern China, said last week.

"I got free tickets from the travel agency."

This government campaign had a simple but noble objective: helping the six-month Shanghai Expo reach its target of 70 million visitors, which would shatter Japan's Expo attendance record of 64 million, set in Osaka in 1970.

Breaking the record was a matter of national pride, and in a country with a history of mass mobilisations and state propaganda, reaching the target was not a question of if but when.

That day arrived on 24 October, when Expo attendance eclipsed the 70 million mark, with a week to go. By the time the Expo closed, just over 73 million visitors had passed through the Expo turnstiles; it is believed to be one of the biggest events ever staged.

However, only 5.8 per cent of the visitors - about 4.2 million - were foreigners, according to government data.

Liu Kang, who teaches at Jiaotong University in Shanghai, said: "China always has these quotas. And if they don't make the numbers, it's not good for those in power."

When the Expo opened on 1 May, a sprawling multi-billion- dollar global theme park came to life with hundreds of national pavilions, including Saudi Arabia's spectacularly expensive Imax-equipped pavilion and Britain's design gem, known as the "seed cathedral".

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But hopes for a record-breaking effort seemed in doubt after visitor numbers dipped to 131,000 a day on 3 May. That was far below the 380,000 daily average organisers said was necessary to break the record.

Soon after, Expo officials reminded the media Shanghai's 20 million residents would each be given a free one-day Expo pass.The city also started a promotional blitz on the nation's state-run networks. State travel agencies were pressed to deliver their Expo quotas. And they did.

"We had to entertain lots of government tourists," said Ni Ni, a spokeswoman for the Jiangxi International Travel Agency in western China.

"We arranged for a group of 1,000 for our local state-owned company. These trips are all covered by the government. Each travel agency partnered with the Expo has a quota. Even very remote areas like Anhui, Henan and Jiangxi Province have all surpassed the quota."