SHANGHAI (REUTERS).- Shanghai officially opened its multi-billion-dollar Expo Friday with a dazzling display of fireworks, lasers and dancing fountains, amid tight security and the virtual shutdown of its main Pudong financial district.
After a rather low-key performance by singers and dancers in an indoor arena, the ceremony moved outside, with fireworks exploding off bridges and fountains shooting water up as high as 80 meters (263 ft).
Some 6,000 LED fuchsia, red and yellow balls floated into the murky Huangpu River, creating a bright sea of balloons against the black water.
"The World Expo is a grand event to showcase the best achievements of human civilization. It is also a great occasion for people from around the world to share joy and friendship," President Hu Jintao told a welcome dinner for foreign leaders.
"As the first registered World Expo hosted by a developing country, the Shanghai Expo will be an opportunity for China and also for the world," Hu added, to an audience which included North Korea's number two, Kim Yong-nam.
The city left nothing to chance for the big night, lining the roads with police and all but shutting down from early in the morning the Pudong financial area, home to China's tallest building, its main stock exchange and numerous upmarket hotels.
China's business capital, playing host to world leaders including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, is swabbing travellers for explosives at its airports, x-raying bags on the subway and even warning people not to hang their laundry outside.
The Expo aims to showcase the latest technology and inventions from 189 countries ranging from the United States and Germany to North Korea and financially troubled Iceland and Greece, often in innovative or bizarre national "pavilions."
Shanghai has taken great pride in hosting the Expo, nearly two years after the capital Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, winning huge praise for the opening and closing ceremonies in another high-level security operation.
The city has spent a reported $58 billion on the Expo and related infrastructure to accommodate the 70 million mainly Chinese who will visit during the six-month spectacular.
The Expo site, which opens to the public Saturday morning, is expected to host on average more than 300,000 visitors a day.
"It's not a waste of money because as Chinese we need to support it. It is necessary for China as it will help us rise in international stature," said Chen Wei, 26, who was watching the ceremony on a giant screen in the ritzy Xintiandi shopping area.
'Pearl of the Orient' Revisited
The Expo's theme is "Better City, Better Life," a slogan plastered all over rapidly expanding and crowded Shanghai.
The main site has been designed to be environmentally friendly, incorporating the country's largest solar plant and the use of zero-emission vehicles. However, most of the pavilions will be demolished after October 31 when the Expo ends.
The government also had to relocate thousands of people for the Expo, some forcefully, according to rights groups. Activists have been threatened by the police to keep quiet during the festivities.
"The Shanghai Expo authorities should be mindful that many remember the 2008 Beijing Olympics as much for the arrests and detention of peaceful protesters and journalists as for the achievements of the athletes," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Shanghai is counting on spectacle, business and tourism keeping politics out of most visitors' minds.
The city has tried to revive the glamour associated with it in the 1920s, when Shanghai was dubbed the "Pearl of the Orient" for the lavishness of its glitterati and art deco buildings.
Swathes of streets have been redeveloped, including the historic Bund waterfront promenade, where the government splashed out on a $700 million revamp.
Still, not everyone watching the ceremonies on screens around the city seemed to know much about what an Expo, also known as the world's fair, is.
"I was talking to a security guard the other day and he said the Expo only happens every 150 years. Is that true?" said Xiao Xiong, 32, a cleaner from the southwestern city of Chongqing.
(Additional reporting by Royston Chan, Melanie Lee and Jason Subler; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)