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    Greater China
     Jan 24, 2012

Here be dragons
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - The dragon is the most revered and auspicious animal in the Chinese zodiac, but this Year of the Dragon, which begins on January 23, was off to a bad start before it even began.

How else to explain the critical reaction within China to a commemorative postage stamp issued by China Post depicting the dragon as the fierce, fanged and clawed mythical creature it is supposed to be.

"Too scary!" media critics complained.

"Inappropriate," cried scores of politically correct



Now, as the fireworks explode and the celebrations commence, the dragon debate rages on: Is this the menacing image a rising China wants to present to the rest of the world?

To which this self-anointed feng-shui commentator responds: Absolutely - unless this is to be the year that China becomes known as a nation of 1.3 billion wimps.

The dragon has long been the preeminent symbol of imperial power in China; indeed, the first set of stamps issued in the country - during the Qing Dynasty, in 1878 - bore the image of a giant dragon whose features could hardly be considered congenial; no one then wanted to adopt this oversize serpent as a pet, and no one should want to Disneyify the Chinese dragon in 2012.

After all, it's the Year of the Dragon, and it comes only once every 12 years. The thrashing, fire-breathing ferocity of Western dragons may inspire fear and loathing, but in Chinese lore dragons are fierce and frightful because - like the emperors they have represented - they offer protection and security while also possessing mythical powers to ward off evil spirits and disasters.

Who would you rather have guarding the commonweal of your nation - a Chinese dragon or Mickey Mouse?

So, as the world bids farewell to the Year of the Rabbit and ushers in a new year that - despite an array of daunting challenges - is full of propitious promise, let's make sure we get off on the right foot: Let dragons to be dragons, as any geomancer worth his or her salt will tell you.

The dragon is one of 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac, but it outranks all others as the ultimate emblem of the Chinese nation and race. Paradoxically, it represents power and unmitigating authority on the one hand but benevolence and blessings on the other.

Dragon years should be filled with happiness, security, abundance and prosperity.

Government figures may show that China's economy grew at its slowest rate - 8.9% - in two-and-a-half years in the last quarter of 2011, but the news nevertheless boosted the world's stock markets because it was better than most analysts had expected. Feng-shui masters say the boost is no doubt due the influence of the advancing dragon chasing the rabbit to the back of the zodiacal queue.

As the euro zone heads toward the financial abyss and the US economy continues to limp along, the fierce protection offered by the dragon should provide China with a proverbial soft landing in the coming year. At least, that is what Chinese leaders hope and pray for.

According to their sobering (and very un-geomantic) calculations, growth of under 8% could wreak enough economic havoc to provoke social unrest - unleashing the darker side of the Chinese dragon's ferocity. No one wants that, and most fortune-tellers assert that this year's dragon possesses enough strength to pull China through the economic trough that is expected in 2012.

But the ancient art of feng shui goes well beyond simply taking note of which of the 12 animals of the zodiac occupies center stage in any given year. There are also the five basic elements to contend with - metal, wood, water, fire and earth. These elements rotate through the zodiac, creating a 60-year cycle with each year presenting a chessboard of possibilities for prognostication.

This year is dominated by two elements - water and earth. Since these elements are eternally locked in a destructive relationship, the Year of the Dragon will not be without conflict and natural disasters. Expect the politics of the Middle East and North Africa to continue to roil while the earth shakes and the seas bulge and surge. Prepare yourself for a wild ride, although also remember that in the end the dragon is there for assurance and protection.

China's disputed claims over territories in the South China Sea could deepen conflicts with its regional neighbors - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. But, as with China's relations with the rest of the world, the power and mystique of the dragon should hold sway.

Chinese foreign policy in the coming year could bring to mind Ang Lee's popular martial-arts film of 12 years ago, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - except that there will be no need for the tiger to pounce or the dragon to come out of his lair.

The threat of ferocity (especially hidden ferocity) becomes the blessing of protection. China Post, among others, knows this lesson very well.

The total absence of the fire element this year spells bad news for stock markets and the world of finance. The mediating influence of earth should prevent disaster, but count on a wet year for the world economy. Be careful and conservative in investments - or get soaked.

In Hong Kong, people hope the dragon will bring them good fortune and prosperity, but they are also bracing for an unwanted baby boom coming from the north. For years, Hong Kong's superior health-care system and promise of right of abode to all Chinese citizens who are born here have served as magnets for expectant mainland mothers, whose growing numbers are draining resources in the city's hospital system and leaving precious little space for Hong Kong moms and their newborn babies.

The problem, already acute, is almost certainly going to get worse in a dragon year, the most auspicious in the Chinese almanac. In 2000, the previous Year of the Dragon, birth rates in Hong Kong shot up 5.6%, to 54,134, according to official data, and an even bigger spike, spurred by mainland mothers-to-be dodging China's one-child policy, is anticipated this year.

In preparation for the onslaught, the Hong Kong government has raised obstetric fees at public hospitals for women from the mainland and also capped the number of deliveries by mothers who are not residents of Hong Kong at 3,400 in public hospitals and 31,000 in private hospitals.

These caps, however, have prompted some desperate mainland moms to turn up at the emergency wards of the city's hospitals to have their babies. This, in turn, has led immigration officials to begin implementing checks on mainland women at the border and to turn back any visibly pregnant women who cannot prove that they have a booking at a Hong Kong hospital - an awkward and imprecise art at best.

The irony in all this is that Hong Kong's fertility rate is among the lowest in the world and its rapidly aging population poses a threat to the city's future development. In other words, Hong Kong needs more babies, lots of them.

Clearly, then, this is a year in which the Hong Kong government should build more hospitals and, picking up where China Post left off, let dragons be dragons.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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