As the man responsible for making sure 20,000 Chinese freight trains run as scheduled on Jan. 1, 2000, Cui Deshan seems remarkably relaxed.
Sure, far-flung factories could grind to a halt if the country's most important means of transportation is disrupted by the Y2K computer bug. And Cui's head could roll if technical glitches strand China's coal, grain and steel output on the massive railway network.
"No matter what happens, railway shipping will not stop," Cui said between the incessant ring of Y2K-related phone calls. "We've already moved from a human-controlled system to a computer-controlled system. It's not like we can't go back. It would just be slower and more difficult."
Cui's cool mix of confidence, resignation and resolve is typical as Chinese prepare for what they call the "thousand year bug." Breakneck economic growth and social transformation over 21 years of economic reforms have tested the mettle of millions of Chinese, as did the fanatical political campaigns of previous decades. As a result, the attitude of many seems to be: We've seen worse!
"The Chinese people in living memory have coped with severe disruptions arising from the Great Leap Forward, the succeeding famine of 1959-61 and the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution," said a report earlier this year by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "Compared with these experiences, even the most cataclysmic Y2K scenarios must pale."
Still, China may face serious problems, especially among the cash-strapped state-owned enterprises that make up half the economy. Many local governments have also been slow to prepare, risking breakdowns in public utilities such as electricity. Moreover, even many of the country's top Y2K experts do not know just how ready China is because information provided by local leaders is often incomplete or inaccurate.
The central government has concentrated on fixing the computer glitch along China's relatively prosperous eastern seaboard, where computer use is more common. Western analysts say China has made significant progress in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai and in critical national sectors such as airlines, banks and stock markets and nuclear power plants. Many have announced successful trial runs. U.S. officials also say they are confident about the safety of China's small nuclear arsenal.
But government specialists acknowledge that this has left wide swaths of the world's most populous country trailing behind.
"China is big, so the progress is not balanced," said Huai Jinpeng, head of China's Y2K Experts Commission, a leading government technical body. He hopes the dearth of computers in central and western China will be a blessing. "In Tibet, they have fewer information technology applications, so maybe it's not so bad."
Over lunch of fried fish, a Chinese specialist working to fix the Y2K problems at a strategic state enterprise induced a round of nervous laughter among his colleagues when he joked about his New Year's plans. "I'm going to go back to my hometown," he said. "There's no electricity there to begin with."
"I'm most worried about the enterprises," said Zhang Qi, the head of China's national Y2K effort, who has taken the unusual tack of publicly criticizing government stragglers. "There are a lot of problems with resources."
Managers of money-losing government firms often do not pay their workers or make desperately needed capital improvements, let alone invest in seemingly abstract problems like the glitch in computer clocks that could make the year 2000 look like 1900 and could cause computers to malfunction.
But even the highest profile Chinese government firms are still struggling to prepare, and do not know what to expect.
Zhang Yaochen, Y2K manager at the gargantuan China National Petroleum Corp., which has 1.5 million employees, says many of his subsidiaries are ready. But upgrades on a number of facilities have faced delays in part because of squabbles over cost with foreign equipment providers, he said.
As government employees, Chinese enterprise heads are less driven by fear of potential lawsuits than their U.S. counterparts. To the contrary, a number of state executives have sought to shift potential blame and are threatening to put their foreign equipment vendors on blacklists unless they offer deep discounts for Y2K fixes.
Y2K is a difficult test for a system not accustomed to setting clear priorities, making tough funding decisions and following real deadlines, said Austin Hu, the World Bank's point man on the issue in China.
Signs have already emerged about what might go wrong. For instance, China's massive population database could be affected by the glitch. Although the Public Security Ministry has certified that its computerized records on 470 million people are bug-free, anecdotal evidence suggests problems may remain in the complex and largely concealed system.
Last Jan. 4, the Entry-Exit Bureau printed thousands of five-year passports with Jan. 4, 1904 expiration dates, according to an official government Web site. Last year, a police computer system in one Chinese city crashed while sorting convict files beyond 2000, according to the site.
Potential nontechnical problems also have Chinese authorities worried. One fear is a run on the banks. China's overextended state-owned banks would already be considered bankrupt if Western accounting practices were used. If large numbers of depositors, spooked by Y2K, line up to withdraw their money, a crisis could develop even if all the bank's computers were functioning properly.