By Lucy Hornby
Chinese celebrated the Lunar New Year Monday with hopes that the Year of the Ox will be more bullish than disaster-stricken 2008.
"Goodbye to the snows of 08, the quake of 08, the pain of 08, the bitterness of 08; May 2009 be bullish for you," read one greeting sent by text message at midnight, as fireworks exploded across the nation in a raucous welcome to the New Year.
The Year of the Rat was not a good one for China, despite high hopes for the Olympic games hosted in Beijing in August. Ice storms interrupted the last Lunar New Year. Tibetans staged a brief but widespread uprising. Tainted milk sickened thousands of babies and a slowing economy heralded heavy job losses.
In Sichuan, where a devastating May 12 earthquake killed more than 80,000 people, some survivors put on a brave face.
"We've cobbled together a new house. It's not too bad," said Liu Shaoyun, whose nephew was killed when his school dormitory collapsed in Muyuzhen, in northeastern Sichuan.
"It's a little cold, but what can you do?"
Premier Wen Jiabao this weekend visited ethnic Qiang villagers near Beichuan, a town that was half-buried by landslides during the earthquake.
The economy is a more immediate worry for most Chinese, as a real estate slump at home and drop in export demand from abroad has caused factories to close and businesses to cut bonuses. Many migrant workers, whose remittances sustain the rural economy, are now home for the New Year but could have trouble finding jobs when they return to the cities next month.
Unemployed people have been allowed to peddle wares without paying a fee at the temple fair in Beijing's Temple of the Earth, the Beijing Times said Monday.
Chinese president Hu Jintao pledged more "equal development across society" during a pre-holiday visit to Jinggangshan, a poor Communist revolutionary base in the southern mountains that has been mostly left out of China's headlong rush to riches over the last three decades of economic reform.
State television showed Hu beaming as a baby kissed his cheek, visiting a marketplace, and singing with villagers at Jinggangshan, where an embattled Mao Zedong regrouped communist forces in the late 1920s before embarking on the Long March.
Acknowledging the winter storms and power outages that ensnarled much of South China last winter, Hu also visited a power plant and called for steady electricity supply.
The ox is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac and symbolizes, patience, hard work and tenacity and loyalty.