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YEAR OF THE GOLDEN PIG BABY BOOM

Editor's note: NBC's Ian Williams will report from Beijing on the Sunday edition of NBC Nightly News.

BEIJING -- Compared with their usual bustle, the streets here are largely deserted. The city is quiet, except for the occasional explosive thud, a whoosh of a rocket, or series of small bangs.

No, this isn't a blog from war-torn Baghdad, but from Beijing on Chinese New Year's Eve. People have left in droves to celebrate New Year with their families elsewhere in the country, and those who remain are priming their fireworks, ready to see in the Year of the Pig, which begins on Sunday.

Nationwide, China's railways are expecting to carry more than 155m people over the New Year period - a record.


The most crowded places in the capital appear to be hospital maternity wards, which are bracing themselves for an expected baby boom, an onslaught of pregnant women preparing to give birth in the Year of the Pig. Those born in the pig year are said to be easy-going, loyal and lucky. What's more, this is supposedly the year of the Golden Pig, which comes around only once every 60 years, and which Chinese astrologers say is twice blessed, giving an even better chance of wealth, happiness and longevity.

In the maternity ward of Beijing's China-Japan Friendship Hospital, one of the city's biggest, Cui Xiaohuai surveys beds lining the corridors outside overcrowded wards. She is chief nurse in the obstetric department, and says that over the next year they expect to deliver double their unusual 200 babies a month. She says the hospital is adding more temporary beds and staff to cope.

"We are already overwhelmed," she says. "Everybody wants a baby born the Year of the Pig."

Although many people now find ways of sidestepping the rules, China still has a one-child policy, and many of those in Cui Xiaohuai's ward were determined their only child be born in what they regard as a lucky year.

"My husband and I planned for it," says Chen Xing, one heavily pregnant mother-to-be, who nevertheless appeared to be cutting it a bit fine.

There was a boom in weddings during the Year of the Dog, which precedes the Pig. Others in Mrs. Chen's ward didn't quite get their timing right, and the hospital's double-decker trolleys were already laden with swaddled babies, hours ahead of the official start of the year.

Across the city there are just 3,800 maternity ward beds and only 3,000 doctors and nurses available to work in them. Beijing's health authorities claim they do have the resources to cope, but last week advised expectant women to steer clear of the city's top hospitals over the coming months.

The scene will be repeated nationwide, with hundreds of thousands of couples targeting 2007 as the year to have their baby. Chinese newspapers have reported that delivery rooms in Shanghai are fully booked until well into March.

Under the Chinese zodiac, there are 12 rotating animal signs - a person can be a rat, ox, tiger,  dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, rabbit, dog or pig. Each is said to have different characteristics. In addition there are five rotating elements - gold, water, wood, fire and earth, of which gold is the most coveted.

At least that's the theory. Some experts quoted in local newspapers this week are questioning whether this year really is a golden year, though with or without the gold, pigs are considered lucky. That said, the population spike that will come this year might undermine some of that expected luck, since it will create more competition for school places and ultimately jobs for this year's boomers in the years ahead.

That's what happening to those born in 2000, the last Year of the Dragon, another auspicious sign. There was a spike in births that year too, and many young dragons are struggling to find places in schools.

Not that any of that will dim the happiness of the mothers-to-be at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. If anything, there has been a surge in belief in the zodiac and all other manner of fortune telling, once dismissed by Mao Tse-Tung as dangerous superstitions.

It's worth noting that the last Year of the Golden Pig was 1947, two years before Mao took power, and a year that also saw the birth of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elton John and Hillary Clinton. Make what you will of that!