BEIJING -- In a sign of the times in this nominally Communist country, Beijingers rang in the New Year by flocking to department stores to take advantage of sales on everything from wide-screen televisions to wool scarves.
New Year's Eve is not traditionally a big date on the Chinese calendar -- not the Western one, anyway -- but tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of the capital last night to watch fireworks displays, stroll across Tiananmen Square and hunt for bargains.
As morning arrived, there was no evidence in Beijing or from other major Chinese cities of the potential problems associated with the Y2K computer bug.
Things work smoothly
Telephones, lights, elevators and escalators worked smoothly in the buildings that remained open in the capital. The only troubles with cellular phone networks appeared to stem from overuse.
With some department stores offering discounts of up to 40 percent, the early morning hours took on the air of a nocturnal shopping spree. More than a thousand people thronged to Scitech Plaza, a seven-story department store on the capital's main boulevard. Cash registers worked overtime without glitches.
"They are all fine," said a cashier in the beauty products department as she punched in sale after sale, while Michael Jackson's "Beat It" played on the speakers overhead.
Across the boulevard at the Jianguomen post office, dozens of people arrived by bicycle to get the first postmark of the New Year affixed to their letters. Customers waited in long lines beneath fluorescent lights as postal workers hammered the postmarks on with rubber mallets.
A flame at midnight
West of Tiananmen Square, a crowd of about 10,000 watched as China's President Jiang Zemin lighted a flame at midnight to signify the continuous history and future of the Chinese people. As with many of the historical celebrations in China in 1999, the ceremony was drenched in nationalism.
Jiang stood at the newly built "China Centenary Altar," a monument that resembles a sundial and was built especially for the Year 2000 celebrations. He pledged that China would reunite with the island of Taiwan and enjoy a "great rejuvenation." He also took aim at the United States and its immense power by promising that China would join with other countries to battle "hegemonism."
Although China appeared free of major Y2K problems this morning, the possibility remained that other troubles could arise in the coming days. Last month, officials said that most of the major sectors of the Chinese economy appeared prepared for Y2K.
Concerns about hospitals
They emphasized, though, that other areas of the economy -- such as hospitals and the nation's beleaguered state-owned enterprises -- were vulnerable.
Hospitals in the capital were ordered to perform only emergency surgeries this weekend. The health care industry is thought to be vulnerable because medical equipment, including life-support machines, relies on embedded chips that could malfunction.
In preparation for possible trouble, all banks closed to the public yesterday while employees printed out hard copies of depositors' accounts. Banks will reopen Monday and operate manually if necessary.
To inspire public confidence, Chinese aviation officials were aloft at midnight. Liu Jianfeng, president of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, flew aboard China Eastern Airlines MU 2000 with about 286 passengers from Shanghai to Beijing.
The flight, which had a waiting list of 40, landed safely in the capital at 12: 39 a.m. The $121, one-way ticket included a $48,000 insurance policy.