A Proud but Poor Nation Hopes for Rejuvenation

BEIJING

With a carefully choreographed celebration thick with political overtones, China rang in the New Year with its leaders and many of its people expressing hope that the next century will belong to this proud nation that has felt abused by history for more than 100 years.

From cab drivers and retired laborers to President Jiang Zemin, Chinese of all stripes said they hoped that during the 21st century China, still one of the world's poorest nations, would emerge as a world power. Jiang, in a speech shortly before clocks in Beijing struck midnight, promised that "under the leadership of the Communist Party," China would "realize a great rejuvenation" in the next century.

"The next century will be ours," declared Xie Dan, a slightly tipsy steelyard worker as he celebrated on Beijing's main shopping boulevard, Wangfujing. "We have been waiting for years . . . for centuries!"

Jiang made his comments near the end of a nationally televised broadcast of Chinese songs and dances that emphasized "the superiority of the Chinese race" and the power of the Communist Party. "Our red flag of five stars," went one song, "lets Chinese people all over the world feel proud and elated."

The New Year's Eve celebration marked another attempt by the Communist Party and Jiang to boost their profiles in a country where both are viewed increasingly with disdain. It took place on the Chinese Century Altar--a recently completed five-story, 3,200-ton monument to China's history. Throughout the evening, dancers waltzed inside huge plastic balloons and singers, decked out in costumes that seemed to be from the set of Star Trek, lip-synced the words to syrupy ditties.

Tens of thousands of Chinese also flocked to Tiananmen Square, the political center of China. But when the clock struck midnight, the crowd hardly stirred. "Happy New Year," people whispered to each other from under layers of heavy winter clothing.

Some explained that Chinese have no tradition of celebrating the New Year. The fun here occurs during the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year that usually falls in February or March.

"You should be here during the Lunar New Year. Now that will be exciting. It's a dragon year," said Xiao Li, a young woman standing under the enormous portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Police with bullhorns then fanned out through the square urging people to go home. "There's no activity here today. Get moving!" said one officer.

Thousands of revelers also partied on the Great Wall and danced to techno music inside the Forbidden City. Two thousand couples participated in a mass wedding--although none of the husbands publicly kissed a bride.

Newlywed Ai Lina said there was no kissing because Chinese culture tends to be conservative. But she grabbed her grinning husband around the waist and added: "Maybe China will develop to the level of public kissing after 2000."

Others sought to commemorate the dawning of a new era in more thoughtful ways. A group of 10 writers, editors and other intellectuals headed out for an overnight drive to one of the most destitute areas of Hebei province, bordering Beijing. They carried with them 500 small cloth gift bags that included a notebook and a pen to give to impoverished children to encourage them to study.

"China has a lot of poor children. They don't even know it's the year 2000. They will think it's the same as every other day," said Wang Lixiong, a novelist and social critic who put out an appeal on the Internet for people to join him on the trip. "At a minimum, it will bring them joy. As for us, we are happy. . . . It's much better than drinking in a bar."

-- John Pomfret

On a Cold Airport Runway, A Sense of a New Beginning

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan

On a chilly runway in a country that does not recognize the Christian calendar, a millennial spirit was etched on every grinning face as more than 150 hostages were peacefully released from a week-long plane hijacking.

From hundreds of Muslim bystanders to turbaned officials of Afghanistan's radical Islamic regime--in whose religious calendar the year was 1420, not 1999--the joy and relief at the end of the crisis seemed to translate into a new beginning.

Even Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the normally somber and unsmiling foreign minister of Afghanistan's rigidly anti-Western Taliban regime, grinned and said he hoped the world would recognize the "historic service" his government had rendered "on the last day of the millennium."

Jaswant Singh, the towering, gray-haired Indian foreign minister who arrived by plane to oversee the New Year's Eve release of the hostages, added his own millennial spin to the occasion as he stood beside Muttawakil in the airport lounge.

"I came here on a deeply humanitarian issue in which innocent men, women and children were criminally confined in this festive season with a spirit of life and joy," he said. "Without a doubt, what we feel is relief at the end of the torment of the innocent."

For the delegation of European diplomats and U.N. staff members who have been camped at the airport since the hijacked Indian Airlines jet landed here early last Saturday, there was a jubilant double celebration with a large chocolate cake, delivered by a U.N. plane from Islamabad, Pakistan, along with 750 boxed dinners.

Taliban officials played a crucial role in persuading the five hijackers to release the hostages--who included more than 100 Indians, a number of Europeans and one American woman--in return for India releasing three Islamic insurgents imprisoned in Indian Kashmir.

"It is a very good start to the new century," said Erick de Mul, chief U.N. spokesman here, looking exhausted but happy after the hijackers were driven off and the hostages were loaded into buses before flying back to New Delhi in another aircraft. Since no alcohol is permitted in this Islamic country, de Mul added, "We will celebrate tonight with tea."

It was only possible to imagine the gamut of New Year's emotions felt by the released hostages, who could be seen from a distance as they were bused from one plane that had imprisoned them to another that flew them to freedom.

Diplomats who boarded the plane to escort the passengers off said that they seemed in good spirits but that some were shaken. One Belgian man collapsed and cried in the arms of the Belgian consul, according to one of the diplomats.

Taliban officials and aides, who mingled cordially with foreign journalists and U.N. staffers in the crowded airport all day, said that while they did not recognize the millennium, they respected Christian traditions and hoped the West would respect theirs.

And although Taliban authorities would not say so publicly, there was widespread hope here that the peaceful resolution of the hijacking crisis, enabled largely by Afghan officials' firm but persuasive role as intermediaries, would bring a new era of international sympathy and openness toward the pariah regime.

"You believe in the cross, and we believe what we believe," said Mirzama Hamat, a Taliban aide who was providing food and blankets to Western diplomats and journalists. "I hope the New Year will be very good for us, for you, and for everyone," he said. "Now there is peace, there is no fighting, and everything is fine."

-- Pamela Constable

As Spirits Overflow, A Rush to Get Revelers Home

MOSCOW

Ivan Sharov, the kindly administrator of a refuge for drunks, was trying to get one of his clients to show some life.

"Now, you have slept enough. I can get you out now, you can spend New Year's at home," he said, shaking a gaunt old man gently.

New Year's Eve in Russia, like in many places, means drinking until you can't stand up, which is usually not a life-threatening problem if you're at home happily among equally inebriated friends and relatives. But when you fall flat on the icy pavement, it can be deadly--Moscow loses scores of drunks to the cold each year.

So the municipality furnishes 15 drunk tanks, where police bring the absolutely limp wanderers to sleep it off. Sharov runs one of them, in west Moscow. Two dozen beds off a hallway decorated with Soviet-era posters dedicated to the evils of drink greet the drunks. Russians are unpuritanically tolerant of drinking, so this refuge is considered a natural solution to the problem of passing out.

New Year's Eve, of course, is special--the drinking starts early and goes on all night. Sharov instituted a special policy, in line with Russia's belief that one should spend the holiday in friendly company, that if a drunk is brought into his place by 10 p.m., he and his 33 co-workers will do everything possible to get him home before midnight. Usually, by law, drunks have to stay at least three hours, no matter what time they show up.

The witching hour at this refuge was not just before midnight, but just before 10 p.m. Sharov was hosting three drunks whom he thought he could get up and out in time to go home for New Year's Eve celebrations. Three vans were waiting outside in the snow to take them home. Sharov and his aides tried to roust them from their cots. "Happy New Year! Happy New Year!" said a barrel-shaped helper to an unshaven youth.

To get the trio moving--all three had arrived no more than an hour and a half before-- tea, aspirin, water and slapping around a little bit were all on the menu. "New Year's Eve is a moment you want to be with your family," Sharov said.

One of the men showed signs of movement. The helper told him that President Boris Yeltsin had resigned.

"Who?" the man asked. The clock was ticking. Five minutes to 10. The three drunks, supported by brawny policemen, headed to the door. The unshaven youth drooled. "I didn't want to come here!" he shouted.

The skinny old man was virtually carried to the van. The third, in just a sweater and wool pants, straightened himself up and walked out unaided.

A doctor whose job it was to certify that the drunks could go home sighed with relief. "Hurrah," Sharov said. He and his staff began their own millennium celebration.

With cups of tea.

-- Daniel Williams

At One Party, Caviar At Another, a Fatted Goat

WATAMU, Kenya

With its thatched roof and artfully planted palms, Hemingways Resort looks for all the world like an effort to duplicate on the shore of the Indian Ocean the sensational haven that a village called Dongokundu has achieved, without conspicuous effort, a half-mile down the road and a couple of hundred yards inland.

The resort is owned by a man named Dicky Evans, who made a fortune growing vegetables in Kenya and selling them in Europe. He started planning for the millennium two years ago--a two-week extravaganza at his 75-room hotel at a price of up to $12,000 a room. "If we break even, I'll have a beer," Evans said.

The village was established by Jefwa Mwaro, who in 1971 built the first mud-and-stick house under a canopy of coconut palms. Now 30 people, most of them relatives, live around him, including Christine Kafedha, a stout, cheerful woman who may be 35. She was born before many people in rural Africa kept track of birth dates and only learned about the millennium on the morning of the 31st from her brother.

"I just knew it's a new year," she said.

Still, that meant a day of preparation, because New Year's called for a feast. Instead of black tea with bread, breakfast would be tea with milk, plus a tasty chapati--a kind of tortilla--and doughnuts made with coconut milk. A goat would be killed for the main meal, as well as chicken, for people who don't eat goat.

And for those who don't eat chicken, there would be vegetables, all accompanied by rice--a treat at 30 cents a pound, twice the price of the cornmeal much of Africa eats daily. This amounts to extravagance, given the $40 a month that Wilson Kariffa, Kafedha's husband, makes working as a cook in the beach house of a white Kenyan. But the family has 20 chickens and six goats.

"So I am ready for the millennium," Kafedha said.

So was Hemingways. Mussels from New Zealand. Salmon from Scotland. Caviar from Scandinavia. And a nine-foot Yamaha concert grand piano from London--one of the only five pianos British comedienne Victoria Wood will consent to play, and therefore air freighted to Kenya, along with its tuner and his wife.

"It seems very comfortable," said Hemingways general manager Alastair Addison.

The stage went up by the pools, its graceful proscenium fashioned to suggest sails. The patio became an outdoor disco of tuxedos and little black dresses, steadily growing, yet dwarfed by the crowd of Kenyans who gathered on the beach below to watch the white people dance.

"We would like to join them, but it is impossible," said Lucy Muthoni, 23, motioning toward the guards. "Impossible."

At midnight, a green laser cast Ernest Hemingway's face onto a rocky island in the harbor. The mouth moved. "Happy New Year," it said.

Dongokundu had a light show as well. Coconut trees, when lit from below by cooking fires, formed a cathedral ceiling spangled by starlight.

Outside her house, Christine Kafedha kneaded the dough for the morning's doughnuts while listening to a cassette of sacred music. She could not get to church this New Year's, but she could drown out the men in the next clearing. There, five "traditionalists" sang the same song of happiness over and over, accompanying themselves on a gasoline drum and an old canister of Doom brand insect spray filled with stones. From tiny gourds, they sipped palm wine.

"We drink day and night," said Kahindi Charo, 28. By 10 p.m., he had drunk seven bottles of the stuff. The New Year that found Kafedha seated on her bed, about to say her prayers, found Charo passed out against one of the drummers, who roused him. Blearily, Charo looked up.

"Happy Christmas," he said.

-- Karl Vick

CAPTION: A newly married bride and groom chase each other and celebrate their wedding and the new year in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Huge snowdrifts did not dampen high spirits.

CAPTION: South African President Thabo Mbeki, right, and former president Nelson Mandela share a toast on Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years under apartheid.