Beijing considers ban on fireworks to curb pollution

The Lunar New Year could proceed without the Chinese tradition and invention.

MCCLATCHY FOREIGN STAFFJanuary 29, 2014 

BEIJING — Imagine New York’s Times Square without the ball drop, or London without the ringing of Big Ben.

Beijing 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.

GOVERNMENT DILEMMA

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.”

“There are so much exhaust emissions,” wrote another. “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 Geng-chen, 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 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.

While Americans now generally mark the Fourth of July 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.

DEATH, INJURY AND AIR QUALITY

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.

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.”

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