By Mail Foreign Service
Fireworks illuminate the sky during the opening ceremony of the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai
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Shanghai celebrated the opening of the 2010 World Expo today with a lavish display of fireworks, fountains and laser lights.
Like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the event showcased China's growing economic and geopolitical sway.
In a toast at a gala dinner for dignitaries invited to watch the ceremony, President Hu Jintao said he was confident the world would 'witness a successful, splendid and unforgettable World Expo.'
World leaders gathered in Shanghai as the city kicked off the World Expo with a star-studded opening ceremony that ended with skies over the city set ablaze in a massive fireworks show
The star-studded indoor festivities included action star Jackie Chan, Japanese singer Shinji Tanimura, concert pianist Lang Lang and opera star Andrea Bocelli among the 2,300 performers.
Afterward, guests moved outside for a lights, music and fireworks jubilee that lit up the banks of the Huangpu river with 1,200 searchlights, powerful lasers and mobile fountains.
The waters glowed with 6,000 rosy-hued LED balls and lights from a parade of flag boats representing nations participating in the Expo.
The Expo, which opens to the public tomorrow, is expected to draw 70 million people over six months to pavilions from almost 200 nations designed to reflect the urban sustainability theme of 'Better City, Better Life.'
From the United States to North Korea, a total of 189 countries will have exhibitions at the six-month event that is expected to attract up to 100 million visitors
The star-studded indoor festivities included action star Jackie Chan, Japanese singer Shinji Tanimura, concert pianist Lang Lang and opera star Andrea Bocelli, among 2,300 performers
China is spending $4.2billion on the Expo itself, and much more on other improvements for Shanghai.
It is the most expensive and largest Expo to date, and local media have reported the true cost is closer to $58 billion, including infrastructure.
'This is a very important moment. We have made preparations for years,' Hong Hao, Deputy General for the Expo, said.
Freshly painted buildings, new highways, subway lines and airport terminals all proclaim the country's newfound status as a modern, increasingly affluent industrial giant.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left), his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Chinese President Hu Jintao in Shanghai and his wife Liu Yongqing pose during the opening ceremony
Action star Jackie Chan and Chinese singer Song Zhuying perform while accompanied by a group of dancers
Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said: 'The government will spend whatever money it takes. For the leadership, it's worthwhile.'
The Expo completes a trio of landmark events that began with the Olympics and was followed by the elaborate military parades for the 2009 celebration of the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule.
All have involved massive security crackdowns, although commercial-minded Shanghai has kept measures relatively low-key compared to the lockdown imposed for the Beijing Olympics.
Colourfully dressed dancers hold up stuffed toys as they perform a dance at the Expo opening
The opening ceremony was a feast of lights, colour, fireworks and dancing
'Of more concern would be bird flu or H1N1. If that breaks out on site, how will they manage to prevent it spreading and how will they attempt to quarantine such a large number of people?' said Greg Hallahan, regional director at business risk consultancy PSA Group in Shanghai.
Still, local authorities, determined to prevent crimes or disturbances that could affect the Expo, have tightened their enforcement of a ban on protests or public criticism of the ruling Communist Party.
Prominent dissident Feng Zhenghu said police confiscated computers from his home after he announced a new manifesto on human rights, a critique of Shanghai's legal system, to coincide with the Expo.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said at least six people who protested having their homes demolished to make way for the Expo were sent to labour camps.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang performs at the opening ceremony. n a toast at a gala dinner for dignitaries invited to watch the ceremony, President Hu Jintao said he was confident the world would 'witness a successful, splendid and unforgettable World Expo.'
Legendary Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli was just one of the 2,300 performers who made the opening ceremony of the Expo such a success
The Shanghai Expo, the first held in a developing country, is a source of pride for many city residents, though they already are complaining about crowds, traffic jams and other disruptions.
The already tight security in the city was increased today as authorities closed the sprawling riverside Expo site to all but a few workers, journalists, and VIPs.
As the evening performance began, police went from door-to-door in some buildings near the Expo site, trying to force visitors to leave as outraged residents argued back.
'We have been bothered many times recently. They even don't allow us to invite our relatives or friends to come see the fireworks. How can such a good thing turn out to be so be miserable?' complained one apartment owner.
Fireworks are launched during the opening. The Shanghai Expo, the first held in a developing country, is a source of pride for many city residents, though they already are complaining about crowds, traffic jams and other disruptions
Expo organisers had insisted on keeping details of their plans for the evening performances hush-hush, saying they did not want to spoil the surprise
Shanghai residents had crowded into areas near the river from the early afternoon, hoping to get a glimpse of the evening celebrations attended by Hu and other leaders.
China's relations with the outside world have been strained of late, with issues like the value of the yuan currency, a fight over censorship with Google and the trial of four Rio Tinto executives casting a pall over the country's efforts to present itself as a respected international player.
Leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso were at the opening ceremony today.
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Smaller countries, such as Israel, are also making efforts to engage China through the Expo, despite the shadow cast by the financial crisis.
Yaffa Ben-Ari, deputy commissioner general of Israel for the Shanghai World Expo, said the Jewish state aimed to boost cooperation through the event.
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It was the first time, he said, that Israel had built its own pavilion, with the government allocating a budget of $12 million for the project.
Expo organizers had insisted on keeping details of their plans for the evening performances hush-hush, saying they did not want to spoil the surprise.
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The elaborate outdoor performances, focused on the themes Welcome to China, Harmonious Gathering and Celebration were centered on what organizers said is the world's largest LED screen, at 920ft long and 108ft high, and a fountain shooting water 262ft high.
David Atkins, the executive producer of the outdoor performance, said: 'This show couldn't be done anywhere but in China.'
Performers demonstrate a futuristic electric car seat that changes angles with the speed of the vehicle, part of the World Expo
The project has not been without its detractors. Rights groups have complained about evictions of residents to make way for the two spectacular main Expo sites on either side of the murky Huangpu River.
Some Chinese have also wondered why the country, with its growing rich-poor gap, severe environmental and other problems is spending so much on an event which lacks an Olympics' cachet.
'Our living costs are five times yours but our salaries are one fifth of yours. Yet we survived and we are still joyfully and happily welcoming friends from all around the world,' wrote popular Shanghai blogger Han Han, with a strong sense of irony.