TAIPEI, Taiwan, Jan. 24 (AP) -- With fireworks and dancing lions, Chinese around the world on Wednesday welcomed the Year of the Snake--a period astrologers say could be lucky for the new U.S. president but dangerous for the leaders of China and Taiwan.

The start of the lunar new year is the biggest holiday for Chinese--about one--fifth of the world's population--and most spent the day feasting, showing off new clothes, praying in temples, playing mahjong and visiting friends and relatives.

According to the 12-symbol Chinese horoscope, this is the year of the snake--or "little dragon." Those born under the symbol are supposed to be diplomatic, charming, deep-thinking and romantic, but they can also be stingy with money, vain and unfaithful in marriage.

The snake can bring upheaval, revolutions and disasters. But this year won't be a time of great change, predicted Taiwanese astrologer Shao Chung-ling, a master of the I Ching (Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese book used for predictions and rooted in traditional Chinese Taoism.

It could be a good year for new President Bush. Bush, born in 1946, is a dog, another of the horoscope symbols, which is believed to be able to get along with the snake.

But other factors must be considered for a more accurate prediction for Bush's first year in office, Taiwanese soothsayers say.

Examining a picture of Bush, Taipei astrologer Ni Su-chuan noted the firm and curvy contour of the president's upper lip.

"At 54, his luck is determined by his lips, and his fortune thrives at this point," Ni said.

"His lips have nice contours, but not wide enough," she said, explaining that Bush may be good at continuing the policies of his predecessor but not broad-minded or bold enough in ushering in a new era.

The two leaders of the world's largest Chinese states, Taiwan and China, should be worried about the upcoming year, according to Chinese astrology. Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and Chinese President Jiang Zemin are both tigers--bitter enemies of the snake.

China's anticipated entry into the World Trade Organization this year could shake up the giant communist nation's economy and bring instability. The country's secretive leadership is also gearing up for a transfer of power--traditionally a time of infighting and maneuvering.

In Beijing, the Year of the Snake got off to a tense start with protests in Tiananmen Square. On the eve of the holiday, five protesters believed to be part of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual sect reportedly set themselves on fire, a possible sign that the group is becoming more radical despite Jiang's aggressive campaign to quash it.

Trouble in China could create problems for Taiwan's Chen. Some Chinawatchers believe that Chinese leaders could try to divert the public's attention from domestic woes by increasing hostilities with Taiwan--which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

Following a Taiwanese tradition, Chen returned Wednesday to his hometown in southern Taiwan to give red envelopes, or "hongbao," of money to the public. Thousands began lining up on Tuesday for the gift of two, 100 Taiwan dollar bills, worth $6.

Taiwanese astrologer Lin Chen-yi said the intelligent but stubborn Chen is a "sparkling sun" whose success depends on whether he can share glory with others.

"The year of the snake is a year to plant seeds and consolidate your base," Lin said. "By next year, the year of horse, the dark cloud will dissipate to unveil the sun if the right things are done."

Famous snakes include President Kennedy and Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong--both charismatic philanderers.

In Hong Kong, tens of thousands of spectators lined the streets for a parade of dancing lions, dragons and floats. Guest participants this year included cowboys from Canada's Calgary Stampede and cheerleaders from the Denver Broncos football team.

The degree of faith in astrology and fortune telling varies among Chinese communities in Asia. In China, the communist government banned astrology for years and belief in the ancient systems has greatly faded away. However, the customs continue in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where people frequently consult fortune tellers before making important decisions.

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