In China, a New Year's Tradition Spurs a Debate Over Air Pollution

For centuries, celebrants have set off fire crackers, supposedly to ward away bad luck. Now, with China's current air pollution woes, some want them banned.

Chinese man sets off fire crackers during Spring Festival celebrations at a village in China's Shanxi province on February 12, 2005. (Reuters)

Among all the ancient traditions that Chinese people observe during the lunar New Year, setting off firecrackers is the most controversial. Originally used to "drive bad luck away," firecrackers have been an intrinsic part of the Chinese New Year celebration for thousands of years. Yet, their contribution to air and noise pollution has always incurred debates about whether they should be banned. This year, the debate has been intensified by the severe air quality crisis many cities faced right before the festival.

Towards the end of January, citizens in Beijing endured several waves of what many Western media outlets dubbed "airpocalypse." On January 29, the air quality index released by the U.S. embassy in Beijing peaked at 526, beyond "hazardous" and literally off the charts. Responding to the environmental disaster, many Web users spontaneously advocated to stop setting off firecrackers during the upcoming festival. A comment tweeted by Shi Shusi(@石述思), the editor-in-chief of the Workers' Daily, is representative. "Entering middle age, I suddenly realize that the majority of my family consists of seniors and children. So although I've loved firecrackers since childhood, I decided to quit using them for the sake of both tranquility for my family and clearer air.  I request earnestly that everyone set off fewer firecrackers, and while doing it, try to keep your distance from seniors and children."

As the anti-firecracker web users' voices multiplied, accounts of official media joined the campaign. China Central Television's Economics and Finance Channel (@央视财经) is one of them. "The air quality in Beijing has become poorer and poorer as we approach the New Year. If we still set off firecrackers, the air quality will not be not restorable. Here, our channel appeals to all society not to set off firecrackers for our children, for our aged parents. Let's make our own contribution to clear the air that our families breathe." By February 11, the post had been shared more than 33,000 times.

The campaign has managed to make a noticeable difference. According to the Beijing Evening News (@北京晚报), sales of firecrackers dropped by 37 percent compared to last year. Using city sanitation bureau data, Beijing News (@新京报) reported that the quantity of firecracker dust was 18 percent lower than last year. User @张醒生 proudly claimed, "I fulfilled my promise this year: I neither bought nor set off any firecrackers. Many people in Beijing have done the same too! Clapping hands for myself."

But not all citizens bought into the initiative. On the eve of lunar new year, Beijing Evening News interviewed a person setting off firecrackers while wearing a protective mask. "I heard that the PM 2.5 index [which measures dangerous airborne particulate matter] was terrible, so I'm wearing a mask to protect myself." When asked by the reporter why he didn't abandon setting off the polluting firecrackers for the benefit of those around him, the interviewee explained, "It's celebrating the New Year; pollution is not the priority."

In fact, a great many Web users question the sudden surge against firecrackers. @疾风劲草3 wrote, "Media's emphasis that firecrackers lead to air pollution is just misleading. Why don't they talk about industrial pollution? Why don't they talk about excessive car use? Why don't they talk about the poor quality of oil and gasoline? Selective, biased propaganda does tremendous harm to us citizens!"

Both sides drew on statistical data to support their arguments. According to China News (@中国新闻网), setting off firecrackers caused heavy pollution in multiple cities. From 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. on New Years' Eve, the high tide of firecracker inflammation, PM 2.5 indices were all above 300 milligrams per cubic meter in Beijing, Xi'an and Nanjing, suggesting fairly poor air quality. Yet, Beijing News reported that at 2 p.m. on the following day, the index declined rapidly to 20 milligram per cubic meter, which showed that the influence of firecrackers was short-term. With light traffic flow and a recess for industrial activities, Beijing maintained good air quality in general during the holiday.

Obviously, firecrackers cannot be the root cause of bad air quality. Instead, the core question is whether individual citizens should take personal responsibility for temporary fluctuations in air quality, with all of its serious effects on human health. User @红玫瑰lawyu  gave an affirmative answer, putting on the table the cultural significance of firecrackers. "Firecrackers is part of folk culture, which cannot be judged according to pragmatic standards. Banning firecrackers shows little respect to our culture. [Practically speaking,] tomb-sweeping is a waste of time and generates pollution, church building in the West is also a waste of time and money, and there is no point in listening to clergymen again and again. [But] pragmatists neglect the cultural and spiritual meanings in those behaviors. "

Many Web users asked whether the state should ban firecrackers, with @作家陈岚 arguing in assent. "Hobbies are worth respecting, but not when they disturb the lives of others. Nothing is more disruptive for others than firecrackers. Why should innocent people endure the noise? Why should we endure pollution? The danger of firecrackers is not only born by those who set them off. Passers-by are no less vulnerable. We should not keep unreasonable practices in the name of folk culture!"

Others contend that a ban would be a product of arbitrary authoritarianism and disrespect citizens' rights. According to @感性的艾奇, "If we really need to decide whether firecrackers should be allowed, we should turn to a popular vote. Authoritarian bans only hurt feelings and anger the people."

This isn't the first time that firecrackers have come under serious scrutiny. In 1993, Beijing banned firecrackers by administrative regulation. But twelve years later, swayed both by cultural preservationists and the sheer difficulty of enforcing the ban, the government revoked it, instead putting limitations on when, where and how firecrackers should be set off.

Instead of an outright ban, Xi Junyang (@奚君羊), professor at Shanghai University of Economics and Finance, suggested taxation. "Raising taxes on factories that produce firecrackers and thus pushing prices up is a good way. Meanwhile, the increased tax revenue can be used to alleviate air pollution," he wrote.

As the increasingly heated debate suggests, a policy pleasing all sides is unlikely to emerge in the near future. Indeed, as @爱有心-义有我 suggests, the issue embodies a convoluted intersection of culture, economics and politics: "Legally speaking, the local government is granted unlimited discretion on this issue. Yet, the real challenge is how to balance economic, environmental, safety and cultural demands. Because of the strong cultural argument behind the scene, legislative tools are not effective enough to tackle social problems, just like the gridlock on gun control faced by the Americans."

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.