SHANGHAI — All along the highway from the airport in Shanghai, thousands of banners trumpet the city and the world exposition it's hosting this year. "Better City, Better Life," reads the expo theme, with the mega-city's skyline as an iconic backdrop.
By the time the road cuts through the dense metropolis to the banks of the Huangpu River, on which some 189 nations have built their shining, expensive expo pavilions, the effect is undeniable: You're in the seat of a rising empire that's ready to welcome the world.
Just a few miles from the event, though, political dissident Feng Zhenghu spends his days being watched by a team of police camped in front of his apartment building.
"It's 24-hour security surveillance. Four or five policemen sit out there," said Feng, a 56-year-old in khakis and a blue cotton shirt who gestured at a black sedan parked outside, the one with no license plates. "I have only limited freedoms. I may be able to meet you today, but tomorrow I may be put under house arrest again for meeting with you."
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Feng had planned earlier this year to host an "online expo" on the Internet, anchored by his list of a dozen "unjust, false and erroneous cases" in which he'd been illegally detained or otherwise denied his rights. Police responded by raiding his home, confiscating his computers and holding him for questioning.
Even as China proudly celebrates its economic progress, observers point to deep concerns about the repressive government that brought it about. The rare sign of political dissent is hammered into submission in China, as is most public discourse on "sensitive" topics such as a lack of rule of law or the difficult legacy of the Cultural Revolution.
While the central government backed the expo to project a picture of China as a harmonious society, on the ascent to a bright future, the realities left outside that frame are more complicated.
The expo has been promoted as a bookend to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and a further proclamation that China, which lifted more than half a billion of its people from extreme poverty between 1981 and 2005, is now a leading world power. The message resonates with many Chinese.
"The Chinese people have been waiting for this chance for 100 years," said Yin Liangyun, 57, a tourist from the southwestern city of Chongqing who was milling around the expo. "In the past, foreign countries invaded our country. Now this expo shows that the Chinese people have stood up and faced the world."
On the other hand, of the tens of millions who are expected to visit by the time the expo closes at the end of October, few will be made aware of the country's political prisoners, the absence of many civil rights and the widespread official corruption.
A world's fair is, of course, not the sort of setting in which a host state usually airs its dirty laundry, but the gulf between the image the Chinese government presents and the police state tactics it employs is startling.
"The Chinese government's priority is controlling the narrative," said Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental advocacy group. "There are all kinds of tensions bubbling under the surface, but at a place like the Shanghai Expo, you're not going to get any hint of it."
Tucked away in his third-floor apartment in northeast Shanghai, Feng isn't part of the official narrative.
Feng made headlines late last year when he refused to leave a waiting area in front of immigration at Tokyo's Narita International Airport for more than 90 days after Chinese officials denied him entry to Shanghai eight different times. Under intense international scrutiny, he finally was allowed to come back this February.
Feng said he'd gone to Tokyo as part of a deal with Shanghai officials, whom he'd infuriated by visiting Beijing early last year with a group of people seeking legal help after the government demolished their homes in the run-up to the expo. Police threw Feng into a van in Beijing, took him to Shanghai and "disappeared" him for 41 days in a small hotel room until he agreed to leave the country, according to Feng's account, the timeline of which is supported by international human rights reports.
A former economics professor who first ran into trouble after he helped draft a public letter in 1989 that was sympathetic to Tiananmen Square protesters, Feng said he'd been detained five times since he returned to Shanghai in February.
Asked about the expo and what it means in light of the experiences of the small number of dissidents who speak publicly in China, Feng thought the question over for a few moments.
"It is true that China has achieved a lot in recent years, improving living standards and a rapid economic development," said Feng, who still has a professor's habit of stopping midsentence to reach into stacks of paper to look up a date or name. "But there is a huge problem with the political justice system and the society as a whole, which desperately needs our efforts."
At the expo, those concerns weren't up for discussion one recent afternoon.
Tourists gawked at the United Kingdom's pavilion, covered with some 60,000 slender, transparent rods that form something of a translucent dandelion. Saudi Arabia's has date palm trees growing on the roof. Spain's looks like a large wicker basket.
Wang Ruchen stood by a glass and steel tower at the expo that reaches into the air and then unfurls at the top — a giant, glittering waterlily. His grandchildren were out there somewhere, running around the crowd.
"When I was young, China was closed to the world; at that time, we couldn't see any hope for the future," said Ruchen, 75, who's from the eastern city of Qingdao. "We brought our grandchildren here to see the pavilions, but most importantly to show them the world, to let them see China's development."
Ruchen smiled broadly and repeated a sentiment heard across the expo grounds: "I'm very proud of my country."
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