With the advent of the Chinese New Year – China’s most important cultural holiday – controversial issues like pollution, environmental responsibility and the role of traditions are once again brought to light.
It’s no secret that smog levels in Beijing have been continuously reaching unprecedented levels, engulfing the city in toxic chemicals for days at a time. On the measurement scale, air quality levels in the past year have frequently fluctuated between levels going beyond the upper limits of the index and “hazardous” levels. Just last Wednesday, pollution soared to 26 times the safe level recommended by the World Health Organization.
The issue of air pollution is one of the focuses of the Xi administration. The government has worked to address this issue during the past year, offering economic incentives for cutting emissions and instituting fines and penalties for exceeding caps. Additionally, Chinese officials ordered highway closures to both minimize carbon dioxide emissions and prevent traffic accidents, as visibility in Beijing dropped to a mere 500 meters.
Beijing in November 2013
Aside from the obvious respiratory and health problems caused by air pollution, there are also numerous negative economic effects associated with the closure of major highways and factories, prohibition of the use of government and private vehicles, and the cancellation of certain outdoor activities, all of which disturb the regular rhythm of the city. Pollution also serves as a major deterrent for tourism.
With the Lunar New Year coming up on January 31st, Chinese officials are extra cautious about air pollution levels. Deriving from ancient mythologies, fireworks and firecrackers continue to be treasured by Chinese citizens as deeply traditional aspects of the holiday, with celebrants setting off the explosives at midnight on the first and fifth days of the lunar calendar to bring good fortune. Unfortunately, they also bring smoke, dust, sulphur-coal compounds and toxic chemicals, which consistently produce spikes in air pollution levels. Last year, PM 2.5 levels jumped by over 500% following the midnight celebrations.
All of this has led Chinese officials to consider banning fireworks on Chinese New Year in relevance to smog concerns, as part of the Beijing mayor’s “all-out effort” against air pollution. Xinhua News reported that the ban will be implemented if pollution reaches the severe “red” or “orange” levels. As such, overall firework cartons are reduced by 10%.
For the good of the environment, perhaps we’ll have to resort to videos of fireworks, as some watch videos of merrily crackling logs in a fireplace?
(New Year’s in Hong Kong)
However, people have been frequently dismissive of past bans, lighting up firecrackers in spite of official recommendations. The long-held custom is not easily or lightly abandoned, as demonstrated in an online poll by China Youth Daily, which reports that only 983 of their 2,529 respondents will refrain from lighting firecrackers – a mere 38%. While modern Chinese governments frequently choose “progress” over traditions, this is a sentiment that does not seem reflective of many Chinese citizens.
As a compromise between cultural preservation and environmental responsibility, Beijing will provide “environmentally friendly fireworks”, which contain no sulfur and produce less smoke. However, the higher price tag may deter people from opting for the greener option. As the holiday approaches, Chinese residents will be facing a choice between setting off the fireworks or not, though it seems many have already made up their mind.