Ning Jiang loved his fireworks. Every Lunar New Year, the Beijing resident enjoyed driving his daughter to a local fireworks stall. He would watch with delight as the girl picked out her favourite pyrotechnics, favouring those shaped as bees, butterflies or even princesses.
But Ning preferred those smaller, basic firecrackers; the kind that always could be counted on to produce a bang so loud and so startling they would echo throughout the neighbourhood.
“There are traditions for holidays for follow and one of mine is to fire firecrackers,” Ning told the South China Morning Post. “What is a New Year’s celebration without firecrackers?”
More and more Chinese municipalities are about to find out.
Government efforts to curb China’s dire smog problem have led to bans on fireworks in 444 cities across the country since last year.
With the fast approach of Lunar New Year – when the sound of fireworks usually echoes across Chinese towns and cities – this year, authorities have extended the bans further, including Beijing, Tianjin and the provincial capitals Hefei and Changsha.
Last year, within four hours on the eve of Lunar New Year, Beijing’s level of PM2.5, a small, hazardous particle, soared from 75 to 647 micrograms per cubic metre, way beyond the upper limit of 500 on China’s air quality index, because of fireworks, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
On the eve of Lunar New Year in the previous year, the level of PM2.5 reached 700 micrograms per cubic metre, also because of fireworks.
Nationwide, almost all 10 cities with the highest PM2.5 level during the Lunar New Year holiday from 2015 to 2017 hit their peak numbers on the eve and early morning of Lunar New Year. The high figures were caused mainly by fireworks.
Ning is among those who have been willing to trade the combustible, albeit pleasurable tradition of fireworks for cleaner air.
In recent years he has reduced his fireworks spending to 300 yuan (US$47) from as much as 5,000 yuan, following particularly bad winter air pollution from Lunar New Year fireworks in 2013.
If China’s lovers of fireworks resisted the crackdown initially, it was understandable.
China’s attachment to fireworks runs deep.
Not only are fireworks something China invented (along with gunpowder) but they were viewed as a way to chase away Nian, a mythological beast that could only be kept at bay with loud explosions.
The tradition of fending off evil spirits with firecrackers became embedded in the Lunar New Year celebration.
Yet rising concern for the tradition’s impact on air quality after years of severe pollution has changed the mindset even of hard core fireworks enthusiasts like Ning and others who embrace the festival spirit of the holiday season.
Indeed, more than 83 per cent of people who took part in a Beijing government survey at the end of last year said they would throw their support behind a possible fireworks ban.
Armed with this public endorsement, in December, the Beijing legislature announced that the capital would ban fireworks within the fifth ring road, which encircles the city about 10km (6 miles) from its core, and allow fireworks to be lit only in specified suburban areas and at specific times.
Ning said he would miss the festival nights with their pyrotechnic explosions, but fully supported the ban.
“It would be such a shame if we complained about the air quality and at the same time polluted the air in a big way,” he said.
“Fireworks is part of the Chinese festival celebration tradition … but I will cut it to the minimum.
“That’s the least we residents can do.”
The latest bans add to an already difficult business climate for fireworks sellers.
Fireworks remain popular in rural villages and smaller cities, where they are frequently used to mark occasions such as funerals, weddings and other celebrations, the fireworks sellers said.
But demand had already been on the wane in larger cities, where there are restrictions on letting off fireworks outside the Lunar New Year period.
Younger consumers in the cities also see fireworks as old-fashioned, they said, and were less inclined to let their children play with them owing to a lack of space and safety concerns.
President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive also prompted government departments and state-owned enterprises to tighten the spending of public money, including lavish celebrations and the gifting of fireworks to employees for Lunar New Year.
Sun Jianlong, who had been selling firecrackers for five years in a stall outside the third ring, about five kilometres from the city centre, left Beijing to go back to his Hebei home for an early holiday because he could not get a licence.
“Selling firecrackers had been a difficult business these years but it was my income in winter,” Sun said. “I couldn’t make money this year.”
Beijing first banned fireworks in 1993 after 544 people were injured by firecrackers and more than 200 letters were sent to the Beijing government demanding a ban.
Yet the ban was difficult to reinforce and lawmakers proposed changing the ban to restrict use of firecrackers. That proposal led to a relaxation of laws in 2005 that allowed residents to set off firecrackers at certain time during Lunar New Year.
The firecracker ban came back on the table in 2012 after air quality declined.