After nearly eight years of preparation and six rounds of trial runs, Shanghai will kick off its massive World Expo tonight with fireworks and an opening extravaganza, a day before the showcase opens its gates to visitors from all over the world.
The foreign ministry revealed Thursday that 20 heads of state and government will attend the opening ceremony, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who paid a visit to the Expo park Thursday, was scheduled to meet them.
Their arrival means Shanghai will see the largest number of foreign leaders gather in the city since 1843, when it became an open port.
"The Expo is yet another important international gathering following the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," Hu said when meeting Denis Sassou Nguesso and Ali Bongo Ondimba, his counterparts from the Republic of Congo and Gabon, respectively.
"With the strong support from other developing nations, China was sure to host a successful, spectacular and memorable exposition."
Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, has made unprecedented efforts in preparation for the Expo. Local officials said that direct investment in the Expo, both governmental and private, is 28.6 billion yuan ($4.2 billion), including the venue's construction and six-month operation.
If the cost of infrastructure is included, the total budget would be between 300 billion and 400 billion yuan ($44 billion to $58.5 billion), the Shanghai-based 21st Century Business Herald reported.
The city has spruced up the Bund, a strip of historic riverfront buildings, added hundreds of kilometers of subway lines and built new terminals at its domestic and international airports.
In a tightening of security, subway stations are conducting more baggage checks, and guards have been stationed on all buses of the 42 Expo routes and at thousands of bus stops. In all, 8,000 firemen will be on fist-degree alert today and tomorrow.
Expo visitors to will have to pass through airport-style safety checks before being allowed to enter the park, following the same standards as the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Mo Jihong, a professor at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that the organization of the Expo involves nationwide support, and all kinds of resources can be mobilized at short notice.
"It can also help enhance national cohesion and give people a sense of participation," he said, adding that China can bring a new dynamic to the 159-year-old global event by investing tremendous efforts to host it.
AFP commented that China is treating the Expo as a display of the nation's ability to organize events on a scale as massive as the hosting of the Beijing Olympics.
Shanghai wants to put the World Expo, which has in recent years largely dropped off the world's radar, back on the stage as the first developing country to host the event, encouraging countries large and small to take the Expo seriously and use it as a means to improve foreign ties and increase trade, Reuters said.
While some 189 countries are vying with each other to present the best they have in the largest World Expo ever, whose theme is "Better city, better life," multinational companies and trade officials will use the opportunity to forge connections.
The Expo has provided a boost to Shanghai's efforts to transform itself into a global financial center by showcasing its managerial expertise and economic vitality, Lian Ping, chief economist at the Bank of Communications, said in an interview with Xinhua News Agency Thursday.
The Chinese government decided in March 2009 to build Shanghai into an international financial and shipping center, in line with the country's economic strength and the international status of its currency, by 2020.
At the Expo, people are most interested in the cutting-edge architecture of the national pavilions on the 5.3-square-kilometer site and national treasures shipped in from aboard, such as the "Little Mermaid" statue from Denmark, impressionist paintings and Rodin sculptures from France, and works by Renaissance master Caravaggio from Italy.
Visitors could also meet soccer star Ronaldo Luiz Nazario De Lima in the Brazilian pavilion, which he will possibly visit in the coming months.
More than 70 million visitors are expected during the world fair, 95 percent of whom are expected to be Chinese.
But the project has not been without its critics. Some citizens complained that the intensified security measures brought many inconveniences.
"The exhibition, which is not such a big deal in many European countries, is not worth such a huge security effort," said Yang Hongsheng, a Shanghai resident.
Milad Grey from Denmark, who has been living in Shanghai for three years, however, is happy with the cleaner streets and safer environment. He suggested that in the following months, local authorities should treat the subway security checks with an even more serious attitude.
Zhu Jialei, a 25-year-old office worker in Shanghai who visited the Expo park during the trial run last week, told the Global Times that there are some loopholes in the organization of the event, such as the long queues for security screening and volunteers not being effective in solving visitors' problems.
"But it's understandable considering the large scale of the event. And Shanghai could be more internationalized after hosting the event," she said.
Song Shengxia and Ji Beibei contributed to this story