BEIJING (AP) - China welcomed the arrival Monday of the Year of the Ox with fireworks-filled celebrations, but the country's economic worries have already cast the new year in a more sober light.
Millions of Chinese gave a boisterous farewell to a tumultuous 2008 marked by a massive earthquake, the Olympics and a global economic crisis.
But in a somber Lunar New Year greeting, China's finance minister warned that balancing the budget this year would be increasingly difficult, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Xie Xuren described external and internal factors affecting China's development as "very severe" and said more difficulties had to be overcome to achieve steady and relatively fast economic growth, according to a statement posted on the ministry's Web site.
He urged officials to avoid unnecessary spending this year, with local governments ordered to curtail car purchases, catering, meetings and overseas travel.
The Chinese New Year, which marks the start of the Spring Festival, is the country's most important holiday. It is generally celebrated with lavish spending on elaborate meals and exchanges of "hong bao," or red envelopes stuffed with money.
But at the capital's legendary Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant, marketing manager Yang Jing said the financial downturn is already
having an effect on traditional feasting.
"People are feeling it's harder to make money in the economic crisis, so now the customers are more picky about details like food quality and prices. It's not that easy to take even one penny out of their pockets," Yang said.
The country's economic outlook for 2009 has been dampened by the
deepening global financial crisis, with China's 2008 annual growth down to a seven-year low of 9 percent. Thousands of factories have
closed in China's export-driven southeast, and estimates of job losses exceed 2 million.
Communist leaders have worried publicly about rising tensions and possible unrest as laid-off workers stream back to their hometowns. They have promised to create new jobs and are pressing employers to avoid more layoffs.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, announced measures Sunday to help college graduates find jobs, pledging to train 1 million unemployed graduates over the next three years to boost their qualifications.
Despite the grim forecast for the new year, merchants in the capital said fireworks sales were up 28 percent from last year, with some 230,000 fireworks packages sold by Sunday, Xinhua reported.
Meanwhile, a quirky challenge to state television's flashy Lunar New Year gala was dropped by Web sites and ended up only being broadcast by a satellite station with limited coverage in China, the show's organizer said.
Shi Mengqi had designed his show - which was to feature human beatbox rappers and bicycle stunts - as a grass-roots, laid-back alternative to its propaganda-laden competition.
Shi, a wedding planner who produces his own online TV shows, said he was in talks with eight or nine Chinese Web sites to broadcast his New Year show on Sunday night, but all of them backed out, claiming they were warned not to carry the program. He declined to identify the Web sites and said he didn't know who warned them.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)