Peking looks to new year of the ox bless

The omens are looking good as China prepares to celebrate in style, writes Teresa Poole

Peking - At midnight tonight, the ox usurps the rat, Communist leaders flirt briefly with traditional folklore, and the Chinese welcome in the Lunar New Year feeling good about its symbolic potential.

"You see, the ox is so docile, considerate and kind; a faithful friend of humans, working in the fields and transporting heavy goods. So the Year of the Ox must also be a good year, peaceful and prosperous. Not like the Year of the Rat or the Year of the Dog, with so many treacheries and turbulence," said 56-year-old Jia Zhen, a retired factory worker. "Of course that is only what the old people say."

On the streets there is optimism amid the spending frenzy as China prepares for the New Year, or "Chunjie". "I believe that in an ox year ... people will become less devious and more trustworthy," said Zhang Wei, a publisher.

At midnight, President Jiang Zemin will appear on national television with a party political broadcast dressed up as a festive greeting. China Central Television (CCTV) estimates that 700 million people tune in at some point to its main New Year's Eve show.

Officially, the Year of the Ox is already designated a Most Important Year in China, with "Three Important Events" - the return of Hong Kong on 1 July, the once-every-five-years Communist Party plenum in October, and the diversion of the mighty Yangtze river in November. For the first time, the CCTV show will feature Hong Kong film and music stars in its line-up.

It is an important year for Mr Jiang as he shores up his powerbase, and as a man born in the Year of the Tiger, he will have been pleased with the horoscope for tigers this year as forecast by the renowned soothsayer Sung Siu-kwong, in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. "A bumper year ... with notable progress in your career ... A mentor will help you." Mr Jiang's main mentor in recent years has been the ailing patriarch, 92-year-old Deng Xiaoping, who for a long time has confounded reports of his imminent demise. He will not, however,be making any public appearances.

For ordinary Chinese, the Lunar New Year is the most important public holiday, and a time when they will endure the very worst of the country's public transport system in order to travel home to make and eat their traditional dumplings.

Just as much of a challenge during this festive time is shopping, with stores crammed with late-night spenders. At Peking's number one department store, computers and expensive wine have been the hot items.

Food is important at Chunjie. The Peking Youth News estimated that the city's residents are about to gobble up 70,000 pigs, 5,000 tonnes of beef and mutton, 1,050 tonnes of eggs, and 56,000 tonnes of vegetables - and 10 billion dumplings.

Peking's parks will be alive with traditional singing, dancing and fortune-telling. In Dragon Pool park, there are 5,000 persimmon trees, an auspicious display because the sound of the Chinese word for persimmon evokes the glad tidings "everything go as you wish".

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