Imagine New York’s Times Square without the ball drop, or London without the ringing of Big Ben. Beijing is preparing for its own big celebration – the Lunar New Year – but may mark the holiday this week with a ban on fireworks, a Chinese tradition and invention.
City authorities have warned that if weather patterns are conducive to choking air pollution in the next few days, they may ban residents from their usual mass-ignition of pyrotechnics. In other words, Year of the Horse fireworks could be derailed by the Year of the Hoarse.
Like many government edicts in China, this one hasn’t won universal acclaim, either nationally or on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Numerous commenters support the conditional ban, and online petitions may have helped prompt the government to propose it. But a large number of netizens see it as a misdirected move by nanny bureaucrats out of touch with the people.
“Extreme stupidity,” wrote one. “The government doesn’t do a good job of environmental protection with industries. Instead it blames the very small amount of fireworks.”
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“There are so much exhaust emissions,” wrote another netizen. “You don’t manage them and now you won’t let the people have one day of delight?”
City officials say they won’t know until just before the start of the Lunar New Year on Friday if fireworks are banned. If they are, it could test authorities’ ability to control a Chinese custom that dates back at the latest to the Song dynasty, of the 12th century A.D.
“The government is in a dilemma,” said Weng Gengchen, a research fellow at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Authorities, he said, want to respect tradition and let people enjoy the Spring Festival while balancing concerns over public safety.
Chinese New Year, known as Spring Festival here, is China’s most anticipated and dreaded celebration of the year. Hundreds of millions of people are on the move, visiting friends and family around the big week. If travel wasn’t stressful enough, there’s all kinds of gift-giving expectations. And then there are the fireworks.
While Americans now generally mark July Fourth with organized fireworks displays and some sparklers on the front lawn, Beijing is known for an epic riot of pyrotechnics during the Lunar New Year. For hours, at the beginning and end of the festival, the skies across much of the city boom with explosions and are ablaze with color, not just from authorized fireworks but from those created by illicit, small-scale manufacturers.
Over the years, Beijing authorities have struggled to keep the fiery celebrations under control. After widespread reports of deadly fires and maimed children, Beijing effectively banned fireworks in the central city for a decade after 1995. Fireworks resumed, but then, in 2009, the Beijing Television Cultural Center in downtown Beijing caught fire during the Spring Festival, with an unauthorized fireworks display cited as the cause.
This year, the ongoing concerns about death and injury are overlapping with public disgust over air pollution. Although smog often drops in Beijing during the Spring Festival – many motorists are out of town, and industries are shut or running with skeleton crews – fireworks can spike the reduced soot. That’s especially true when there is little wind across the city, allowing pollutants to hug the ground.
Weng, the Chinese Academy researcher, says that monitoring during recent Spring Festivals revealed a doubling of particulate pollution in just a matter of hours. Fireworks, he added, also release gasses, such as carbon monoxide.
Given that ambient air pollution in Beijing is generally unhealthy, a doubling of the amount of soot in the air can push pollution levels into the danger zone. Weng and other researchers have urged the government to restrict fireworks, both to limit exposure to air pollution and also to reduce accidental injuries.
The Beijing Meteorological Bureau plans to release a regularly updated index before and during the Spring Festival to rate air-quality conditions. The index will range from “OK for fireworks” to “extremely unfit for fireworks.”
But whether the government would really ban fireworks displays is an open question.
Fireworks is big business in China, and Chinese manufacturers – based mainly in Hunan province – have captured the vast majority of the world’s market for pyrotechnics. One of the biggest companies is Panda Fireworks, which has a showroom in Beijing to attract retailers serving the municipal market.
Wei Bo, marketing director of Panda’s Beijing operation, recently welcomed a pair of visitors to his showroom. Boxes of fireworks – some labeled “China Dream” and “Universe Carnival” – filled a large room. Dressed casually in a tan polo sweater and black jeans, he demonstrated how Panda is attempting to lure a younger generation to fireworks.
Many younger consumers, he says, are reluctant to buy fireworks because they are unsure what the pyrotechnics will look like. Panda has an app for that. By scanning the barcode on the package of the company’s fireworks, consumers can watch a video of the product in its full glory.
The company is also offering environmentally friendly fireworks, which purport to release less sulfur.
Still, illegal fireworks have an enormous hold in the market, with Yu estimating that 60 percent to 70 percent of all fireworks purchased in Beijing are illegal and potentially dangerous.
The scene last week in a Beijing suburb known as Pi Village provided an indication of how reluctant authorities may be to crack down on such popular tradition. Nearly a dozen people could be seen hawking what appeared to be illegal fireworks on the road that crosses the Wenyu River.
When approached, the dealers asked a foreign visitor if he was buying. When told no, they shied away. Just down the road was a sign urging residents to report illegal fireworks sales. Also down the road were police cars. For whatever reason, however, they didn’t venture close to the river.
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report from Beijing.