Mood bearish in Year of the Ox

January 26, 2009
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, BEIJING, Jan 2 – China gave the Lunar New Year a raucous welcome Monday with parties, feasts and thousands of tonnes of firecrackers, but the mood was far from bullish as the nation ushered in the Year of the Ox.

A barrage of fireworks across the capital Beijing reached its deafening peak at midnight and lit up the city into the early morning as revellers ushered in the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar.

The normally bustling streets were subdued by the afternoon, however, as Chinese retreated to family homes for several days of feasting and holiday observances, a scene repeated across the nation of more than 1.3 billion.

But for many, the joy was tempered by worry over what lies ahead.

"I can\’t help feeling that the financial crisis will have some impact on my life," said Wang Jiu, a 22-year-old migrant worker from eastern Shandong province, on her way to meet friends at a Beijing temple.

She is one of an estimated 120 million people who have left their homes in the countryside to look for work in the cities — and who have been hurt as global economic woes have hit China\’s formerly red-hot economy.

According to government estimates, six million migrants have already lost their jobs due to the crisis, and observers have warned more could meet the same fate.

Graduates from China\’s hundreds of universities are another group likely to be hurt in the slowdown, with the World Bank forecasting 7.5 percent growth in the Year of the Ox, the lowest since 1990.

"I\’m a student, so at the moment the financial crisis doesn\’t affect me too much," said Wu Tian, a 22-year-old economics major. "But I guess it\’s something I\’ll have to start worrying about pretty soon."

Chinese traditionally celebrate the Lunar New Year by handing out money in red envelopes, but this year the envelopes were thinner than normal, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

How this will impact overall holiday consumption in China remains to be seen, but some retailers were wary.

He Haipeng, a 30-year-old trader from Shanxi in the north of the country, travels to Beijing every year to sell his compact discs and DVDs at outdoor fairs. This time around, he said, he sensed a new unwillingness to spend.

"It\’s still early in the festival, but even now it\’s safe to say sales aren\’t as good as last year. But in my business, you just have to insist on being optimistic," he said.

Chinese state media also insisted on optimism, saying consumers were "letting their hair down." Xinhua used the example of Wei Wanqian, a Shandong farmer who celebrated the festival by buying a new tractor.

"Every time there\’ve been difficulties, Communist Party leaders have rushed to forefront to inspire the people," veterans of the party-led revolution were quoted as telling President Hu Jintao, who was visiting them in east China.

"We believe that under the firm leadership of the party, we\’ll make even bigger achievements in the future."

Many Beijing residents on Monday also voiced confidence that they would escape the worst of the crisis.

"Sure it\’ll be a good year," said Ji Xuejun, a 51-year-old worker in the pharmaceutical industry, on his way to visit his mother-in-law.

"China hasn\’t been impacted too much so far, and the government will be sure to handle any problems that might arise."

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