Science delays the 21st century

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The Independent Online
CHINA'S party-pooping scientists have decided the 21st century will begin on 1 January 2001. The decision was taken after a careful perusal of Webster's New World Dictionary and the Gregorian calendar, the state media announced at the weekend. Not mentioned was the six-year study by the China National Committee for Natural Scientific Terms, which more than two years ago decreed that the millennium should indeed start on 1 January 2000.

The country's decision to postpone the next century could well prove politically convenient. The country has already set 2000 as the deadline for wiping out poverty and iodine deficiency, but it is clear that even by its own measures, this will not be achieved in the next ten and a half months. Suddenly, the government can claim it really meant the end of 2000. But it is also just as well that Peking was not chosen for the 2000 summer Olympics as, back at the time of the bidding war, China repeatedly said the games would symbolise the mainland's emergence as a 21st-century world power.

Wang Jinxiu, director of the Astronomy Committee of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said "strong support" for his committee's decision had come from looking up the word "century" in Webster's. It read: "AD 1801 through AD 1900 is the 19th century AD," and was quoted on the front page of the China Daily. Should the 20th century be deemed to end on the stroke of 1 January 2000 after just 99 years, it would cause "a myriad of troubles which are not limited to calendar-setting institutes and keepers of historical records", the newspaper said.

The truth is that China has shown very little interest in millennium celebrations so far, whenever they take place. This is because its efforts are focused on hosting an extravaganza on 1 October 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic - a date set in stone. For ordinary people, the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year is far more symbolic anyway, with the country this year already shutting down to welcome the Year of the Rabbit tomorrow.

The one anniversary China's leaders would dearly like to reschedule is this year's 10th commemoration of the 4 June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Unfortunately for the government, not even the mighty brains at the Chinese Academy of Sciences can postpone that one.