Fireworks have gone on sale at more than 1,000 Beijing firework retail outlets, with sales expected to continue for the next 20 days. With the approach of Chinese New Year, it won’t just be Beijing hosting this huge, round-the-clock explosion of fireworks, but every single urban and rural location in the country.
However, this year, Beijing and many of the country’s central and eastern regions are experiencing skies thick with smog. As a result, the country is undergoing extensive debates as to whether fireworks should be restricted or even disallowed during this New Year’s period.
“For the sake of children and elderly parents, we are not going to let off fireworks this New Year. Let’s all play a part in giving our loved ones some fresh air to breathe.” This was the message sent out via Sina’s microblog by China Central Television’s (CCTV) Finance Channel this January. By the evening of 6th February the message had been re-posted over 30,000 times.
A report by the Beijing Evening News stated that within a 24-hour period on January 28, more than 100 Beijing citizens had called the city’s non-emergency assistance centre to say that letting off fireworks into the already smoggy and polluted air would only be making matters worse and would constitute a health risk. They advocated the restricted use or the non-use of fireworks in these heavily polluted conditions.
Statistics from the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Centre show that last Chinese New Year’s eve the peak hourly level of PM 2.5 at Chegongzhuang metro station increased by close to eighty fold within a couple of hours.
However, there are also many people asking the question: if Beijing has such heavy smog before any fireworks have even been let off, wouldn’t it be better to put the effort into regulating vehicle exhaust and industrial pollution rather than pinning all hopes of reducing smog onto firework restrictions?
The People’s Daily organised an online debate around the topic "Should fireworks be let off during Chinese New Year?" According to Zhang Zhijian, a political commentator from Liuyang, Hunan, the centre of China’s firework industry, “Firecrackers are being constantly scapegoated these days – if children are injured it’s blamed on them, if there’s smog they’re held responsible, if a building catches fire, again it’s the fault of the firecrackers. What have firecrackers done wrong? A traditional practice which brings joy and excitement is being talked about as if it’s immoral.”
In his microblog posting, Ren Zhiqiang, a well-known real-estate agent writes, “What we should be reflecting about is not the custom of letting off fireworks, but the reason the air has become so polluted that even the joy of letting off fireworks has to be sacrificed.”
Beijing did actually implement a provisional Beijing Fireworks Safety Management Regulation back in 1987, to try to gradually curtail the use of fireworks, moving towards a complete ban. An official ban was placed on the discharge of fireworks on December 1, 1993.
However, in response to increasingly loud cries to preserve the tradition of letting off Chinese New Year fireworks, in 2005 Beijing stipulated that outside the fifth ring road, fireworks could be discharged. In July 2005, the National People’s Congress changed the wording of the draft Beijing Fireworks Safety Regulation so that "banned use" became "restricted use".
In 2009, the new CCTV building caught fire due to the illegal discharge of fireworks during Lantern Festival, the last day of the New Year’s celebratory period. There were more calls for a ban on fireworks and in February 2011, Beijing established eight categories of firework-free zone.
During the beginning of 2013, there have been more calls to restrict the use of fireworks, the only difference being that this time, the reason is not the safety of youngsters and noise pollution, but concern and frustration in the face of Beijing’s smog.
On the same day that fireworks went on sale in Beijing, the city’s Meteorological Department explained that for the first time, the city would be releasing a New Year’s period "Fireworks Discharge Weather Index".
Based on predicted weather conditions and changes in air quality, conditions will fall under one of three levels: ‘suitable for discharging fireworks’, ‘not very suitable for discharging fireworks’ or ‘not suitable for discharging fireworks’. This will remind the public only to set off fireworks in appropriate conditions.
Guo Xiaohe is a Masters student at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism