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Tuesday, February 16, 1999 Published at 22:04 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Happy Year of the Rabbit

Drum dancers performing in a Beijing park

The Chinese-speaking world has welcomed the Year of the Rabbit with fireworks, dragon dances and hopes for an end to Asia's economic troubles.

Duncan Hewitt: "They have been celebrating all across China"
In China, tens of millions swarmed to traditional temple fairs to watch annual dance rituals or stayed at home to savour dumplings, fish and sweet rice cakes.

This year more Chinese residents welcomed the New Year with fireworks as several major cities in the north relaxed a five-year ban imposed for safety reasons.

[ image: Lighting joss sticks at Longhua Temple in Shanghai]
Lighting joss sticks at Longhua Temple in Shanghai
However, official figures show that some 96 people died in firework-related accidents in the two months prior to the New Year.

But residents of the capital, Beijing, still had to travel to the suburbs to see organised displays - although in the city itself the sound of fire-crackers through the night made it clear that not all were observing the ban.

Many Chinese took advantage of a seven-day, government-ordered holiday and travelled to their home towns.

In the southern province of Guandung state media said some 24 million journeys had been made in recent days as people travelled to be with their relatives.

Difficult Year of the Tiger

Feng Shui expert Lillian Too tells what the Year of the Rabbit has in store
In his New Year's speech, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji praised the party leadership for surviving through the Year of the Tiger, coping with disastrous floods and the Asian financial crisis.

"Under complicated circumstances both at home and overseas, our great motherland remains prosperous," Mr Zhu said.

Official media featured a series of reports on how victims of last year's severe floods were seeing in the New Year in re-built homes.

Year of the Rabbit eventful

In the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Rabbit is believed to bring peace, prosperity and good luck.

The BBC's Duncan Hewitt in Beijing: "Fire-crackers thundered all through the night"
The year will be marked by important events for China, including the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic and the handover of Macao.

But China must first navigate through what officials have called the "sensitive period" in early June around the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square killings, as well as the 40th anniversary in March of an anti-Chinese uprising in Tibet.

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