New Year's fireworks a little quieter in Chinese capital

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Much of China's population can expect sub-standard sleep after the country starts ringing in the Year of the Monkey. The rat-a-tat snaps of firecrackers, whistling rockets and mortar-like fireworks with possibly enough gunpowder to down a small aircraft will make sure of that.

But whisper it quietly: the skies this year might not be as spectacular, nor the streets so loud.

In Beijing, fireworks sales are down by a half this year after already falling a third in 2015. The central city of Zhengzhou is one of five provincial capitals outlawing firecrackers altogether. Shanghai is also banning them in the city center but, in a nod to marriage customs, handing out free electronic ones to newlyweds.

Whether it's due to expanding municipal restrictions, pollution concerns, a sagging economy or simply fading interest in a country that prides itself on having invented gunpowder, there's a growing sense, at least among Chinese urbanites, that setting firecrackers just isn't the essential tradition it used to be.

Wang Liwei, a 74-year old resident of east Beijing, said he's heard plenty of public announcements warning about the effect of fireworks on public safety and pollution. In Beijing, where residents often deal with winter smog, the government has blanketed the streets with bold-typed signs urging moderation while the subway system has rolled out posters showing a teddy bear hiding behind a gas mask, a string of firecrackers dangling from a paw.

"Everyone around me has seen on TV or heard the radio the last few years so we know what it does to pollution," Wang said. "My children and grandchildren don't shoot as many as we used to, and that's not a problem. Why do you have to go crazy with it?"

But he pointed out he opposed any official ban like what the city had during the 1990s - which many residents flouted anyway.

"You still have to shoot a few and show the tradition to the kids," he added. "It just wouldn't have any New Year flavor otherwise."

Nine years after Beijing lifted a decade-long ban, residents now seem to be voluntarily cutting back on firecrackers. Television stations have aired reports that fireworks stalls scattered around the city are offering 50 percent discounts if not closing early this year. With a few days left before the New Year, merchants at the historic Tianyi market in west Beijing grumbled about sales that were down by at least a third this year, with most blaming the poor economy rather than changing habits.

"I definitely think it's because of the economy," said Teng Qi, a 27-year old from Zhejiang Province who ran a shop in the basement floor. "It is very disappointing. We're now just blindly getting by."

Believed to ward off evil spirits and misfortune, firecrackers have long been purchased for events ranging from weddings and funerals. But for many Chinese, particularly of an older generation, the acrid smell alone is enough to recall joyful memories of the Spring Festival and all its trappings, from the round-table family feasts to the cash-stuffed red envelopes doled out by grandparents.

For police, though, it's something of a nightmare. There were over 15,000 fires related to fireworks during the 2015 New Year period, down 11 percent from a year prior, according to the public security ministry.

Last week, Beijing police began sending notices via text messages and issued pleas on social media.

"Please set as few firecrackers as possible during the Spring Festival Period, minimize air pollution and help keep the capital's skies blue!" said one such post by the police security bureau on Wednesday with a statement that detailed how many injuries Beijingers sustained in 2015.

Authorities in the capital appear set on the policy of allowing 24-hour fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day and 18-hour windows every day for the following two weeks. But bursts of firework-related mayhem in recent years have prompted officials and media commentators to call for tighter restrictions.

One such episode came in 2011 when revelers accidentally scorched a forest in Zhejiang, a five-star hotel in Shenyang and a 1,000-year old Buddhist temple housing holy scriptures in Fujian--all in the span of three days. And in perhaps the best-known instance, employees at Central China Television in 2009 burned down a newly completed tower adjacent to their Beijing headquarters, one of the capital's iconic developments.

But even if the densely populated cities were quieting down to the relief of authorities, many said the countryside won't be giving up their fireworks for a long time yet.

"Where I'm from, firecrackers are a must for all the big occasions," Chen Tang, a 28-year old restaurant worker in Beijing, said one day before he was due to take a train home to rural Anhui Province. "Weddings, funerals, even when someone buys something big, like a television."

Yet others shrugged off what they thought was a slightly fading tradition.

Hunched over his lunch at his stall, Deng Zhi, a 53-year old Tianyi merchant, said he associated firecrackers with his childhood in west Beijing, just a few blocks away. But that was a different time, he said.

"When I was little, of course I loved to set off firecrackers at New Year, but it's not a big deal that we don't use them so much now," he said.

He pointed his chopsticks at a pork belly dish.

"When I was little, I also loved being able to eat fatty meat at New Year," he said. "Now I can eat this every day if I want. Times change."