Chinese New Year without Fireworks?

Every year in China, the newspapers can be guaranteed to carry stories of exploding fireworks factories that leave workers dead or reeling around the sites, trying to find their ears. On Feb. 2, last year, a truckful exploded on an elevated expressway in Henan that was powerful enough to actually bring down a section of the road. In 2011, revelers managed to burn a five-star hotel to the ground in Liaoning. The number of fingers blown off annually is unsettling.

But 2014, the Year of the Horse starting Jan. 31 could be unaccompanied by the age-old crackle of holiday ordinance – not because of the danger of death or dismemberment but because China’s leaders have begun to face up to the fact that their capital of Beijing is one of the most polluted places on the face of the earth, with particulate levels rising on rare occasions to as high as 700 micrograms per cubic meter against a World Health Organization recommended limit of 25 to be safe on a daily basis.

The city has promised a ban on the selling and use of fireworks in the case of an “orange alert” – a forecast of three continuous days of heavy pollution. Details are vague as to how the ban would be enforced – police promised unspecified punishments for those who persisted in setting off fireworks after a verbal warning – and if the past is any indicator, such a drastic step may not be needed.

During last year’s Spring Festival, as the New Year is also called, air pollution was classified as “heavy” – above 200 micrograms per cubic meter – on only four separate days of the 15-day festival period. Still, the announcement is China’s boldest and most concrete step so far in the growing opposition to the ancient custom of New Year fireworks. Rising levels of air pollution, which according to one recent study could shorten average lifespans by as much as 16 years, are causing more and more people to rethink their traditional but possibly lethal celebrations.

Beijing isn’t alone in taking steps to curb fireworks-related pollution. In Nanjing, the city government has increased the number of areas designated as fireworks-free, while cutting down the number of days fireworks may be set off from 16 to 10. Hangzhou, in neighboring Zhejiang province, has gone further, slashing the number of approved days from 18 to only four.

With increased restrictions and cooling customer demand, an industry insider told a local Hangzhou newspaper that he expected sales to drop this year by as much as 50 percent.

Battle for the skies A ban on fireworks in China’s capital would not be unprecedented. In 1993, Spring Festival pyrotechnics injured a total of 544 people, a more than 50 percent increase from the previous year. The government responded with a law banning all fireworks in the city. The ban continued for 11 years following the first silent Spring Festival in 1994, until growing calls for its repeal led to fireworks being re-legalized in 2005.

Since then, Beijing’s preference for a loud and smoky new year has been doggedly resilient. While local media reported 663 fireworks-related injuries in 2007, rising demand led fireworks sellers to boost their supplies with an additional 100,000 boxes the following year. Sales continued to grow in the midst of new restrictions imposed after a 2009 fire which destroyed a portion of China Central Television’s high-profile headquarters then under construction.

However in 2011, living under increasingly smog-choked skies and pollution levels that the US Embassy once famously labeled as “crazy bad,” many began to consider the effect of fireworks displays on the air around them.

Only days before the January 2012 Chinese New Year, Beijing authorities caved to rising pressure and began to release information on PM 2.5 readings, showing the presence of small particles that present a more accurate picture of the city’s air quality.

That year, stocks of fireworks in Beijing’s warehouses fell for the first time since pyrotechnics were re-legalized six years prior, dropping from over 950,000 cases in 2011 to 810,000. Of those, over 30 percent remained unsold by the end of the 15-day festival period.

Since then, the decline has continued unabated, with the current supply of 643,000 cases the lowest level since 2008. The number of retailers has also fallen, down 12 percent from 2013, down for the fourth year in a row.

London fog coming to Beijing? The call to cut down on fireworks during this year’s Spring Festival is becoming increasingly more common. On January 9, actress Zhao Wei posted a message on her Weibo account calling for people to take action. “Everybody is aware of what China’s air is like today,” she wrote, “setting off fireworks for the Spring Festival would just be adding insult to injury. In the 1950s, there was once a heavy fog in London that caused thousands of people to die, do you want China to end up like that?”

Zhao’s message was reposted 5,000 times only 14 minutes after it appeared, according to a Xinhua report, and sparked a wave of similar sentiments from other microbloggers.

China’s media has also taken up the crusade, with newspapers across the country calling on people to voluntarily limit their use of fireworks.

For some, still one step short So far, few are calling for a step beyond voluntary abstinence to a compulsory ban. But supporters of a ban are making their voices heard. Last year, real estate tycoon and social pundit Pan Shiyi made headlines by calling for a ban on fireworks in Beijing.

At a meeting of the city’s People’s Congress, of which he is a member, Pan declared that “our lives are under threat. If we can stop cars from running, why can’t we stop fireworks from being set off?”

In Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, 32 members of the city’s People’s Congress have signed on to a proposal to ban fireworks in the city, though they remain only a small minority among the total 644 delegates.

The most striking call for a ban came on December 28, when the official Party newspaper of eastern Jiangsu province sharply castigated those who shirked at anything less than decisive action.

“As long as there is even a little elasticity in the regulations, they will be nothing more than a mere sheet of paper,” said the Xinhua Daily editorial, looking disparagingly on “the quality of our countrymen” who would take any chance to exploit loopholes.

The paper harshly dismissed appeals to fireworks as an ancient, distinctively Chinese tradition, saying that society must change with the times.

“In feudal society, wasn’t the binding of women’s feet also a kind of traditional custom?”

(Michael Evans is a freelance writer living in Beijing)