A better 2004 is written in the stars

Beijing - After a tumultuous 2003, the world this year will free itself of major wars and the global economy will accelerate as a new cycle of good fortune is ushered in, astrologers across Asia predict.

Stargazers agree that the coming 12 months cannot fare much worse than the seesaw ride that the world went through in 2003, dogged by war in Iraq, fluctuating financial markets and mysterious diseases.

"On the whole, 2004 will be better than 2003," said Hong Kong-based Feng Shui Master Ma Li-wah, when asked about what the Year of the Monkey will bring.

"2004 will herald in a new fortune cycle. The global economy will continue to improve for the better with small enterprises expected to benefit most."

The political front is also expected to be a lot calmer, said the master.

"Although conflicts around the world will continue, like in Iraq, there will be no new major wars emerging. So the political situation is likely to see some stabilisation in the year to come."

While astrological predictions are often dismissed as superstitious nonsense, millions of people swear by what mystics say and Yue Hua, an astrologer from Nangyang in China's Hunan province, spoke in the same tongue as Ma.

"I think there will be no major wars next year," said Yue, but warned: "Corrupt people better watch out as many will be caught."

One of the major drivers of the world economy last year was emerging China and astrologers see the developing nation continuing its juggernaut drive.

"In the year of 2004, China's economic growth rate will be 7,4 percent to nine percent. In the months of March, May, July, September and November, robust economic growth will be witnessed," said Song Qigong, a mystic from Heze in China's Shandong province.

"The industry of real estate will peak while the industry of textile and garment industries will be sluggish."

Yue from Hunan agreed: "I think economic development will speed up in China and more young people will join government service. The mining industry will also flourish next year."

Fortune-tellers in India are counting on Saturn to play a key role to boost that country's worth.

Some, however, warn the riches will come only after mid-2004.

"The current star combination is favourable but Saturn is currently going on the opposite direction from the sun which is a negative factor," said Jugal Kishore Grover of Saral Jyotish astrology firm in New Delhi.

"Saturn represents the masses and leaders and when it travels slow it leads to diseases and earthquakes like the one in Iran and this will taint politicians across the world.

"But come March-end, fortunes will look up as Jupiter, which represents knowledge, is well placed in the path of sun and that will remain there until July and then Mercury will heap riches on our business community between August and October," he said.

The astrologer cautioned however that the period until March 7 could be filled with worries for India and the world. "Saturn delays but does not deny," he added.

Like Grover, China's Song fears major disasters in the year ahead.

"I predict a big fire disaster in 2004," he said, but, like Hong Kong's Ma, does not see a return of the deadly SARS virus that rattled the world in 2003.

"SARS will not come back," he said.

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