Sales plunge as local govts tighten restrictions to reduce air pollution

By Zhang Ye Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/6 17:53:40

China’s fireworks business fizzles

Fireworks were once one of the fastest-growing industries in China, supported by vast domestic demand during the celebration of the Spring Festival holidays and other special occasions such as weddings. But fireworks vendors said the good times are over as more and more local governments have tightened regulations over the use and sale of fireworks during the Spring Festival in an effort to reduce air pollution. In Beijing, fireworks sales during the holidays in 2017 fell 30.3 percent from the previous year. However, the capital city was still plagued by high levels of air pollution during the first day of the lunar new year, when residents traditionally set off fireworks.

Residents purchase fireworks in Binzhou, East China's Shandong Province, on January 27. Photo: CFP

Residents purchase fireworks in Binzhou, East China's Shandong Province, on January 27. Photo: CFP

Fireworks vendor Zhang Fulai is pessimistic about the future of his business.

So far this year, the vendor, based in Xingtai, North China's Hebei Province, has seen sales fall by almost 50 percent from the previous year.

"I'm losing money and can barely pay my sales people," he told the Global Times on Thursday.

It didn't used to be like this. For years, the Spring Festival holidays - when setting off fireworks was nearly ubiquitous everywhere in the country - had been the peak season for fireworks retailers like Zhang.

But things began to change in 2014, when the local governments began banning the use and sale of fireworks in urban areas due to the severe air pollution.

In 2016, Xingtai, which was ranked by the World Health Organization as the city in China with the most polluted air, extended its fireworks bans into five neighboring counties to curb air pollution and maintain public safety.

More restrictions

Many other provinces and cities have likewise added restrictions over the use of fireworks during the Spring Festival.

Beijing and Shijiazhuang, capital of North China's Hebei Province, also tightened restrictions for the Spring Festival holidays of 2017, according to media reports.

As China's most polluted capital, Shijiazhuang banned the use of fireworks within its Second Ring Road for the duration of the entire holidays.

It also restricted the use of fireworks to the eve of the lunar new year, as well as the first, fifth and 15th days of first lunar month of 2017. In 2016, residents within Third Ring Road were allowed to set off firecrackers at certain times and places.

Beijing, for the first time, banned the sale of fireworks within Third Ring Road during the week-long 2017 Spring Festival holidays. The country's capital also said setting off fireworks was prohibited at times of heavy air pollution.

City authorities shortened the period that vendors were allowed to sell fireworks from 20 days to 10 days, resulting in a 30 percent drop in the number of stores selling fireworks, the Xinhua News Agency reported on Thursday. As of Wednesday night, fireworks sales were down 30.3 percent from the previous year.

Setting off fireworks can increase the levels of PM10, particulate matter under 10 micrometers, by up to 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter and PM2.5, particulate matter under 2.5 micrometers, to 500 micrograms per cubic meter, the Beijing-based Workers' Daily reported on January 17. 

Industry upheaval

Government bans further clouded the prospects of a fireworks industry that has already lost favor with many among China's younger generation, Zhang said.

In Liuyang, a city in Central China's Hunan Province that is referred as the fireworks factory of the world, 85 fireworks manufacturers have left the business as of September 22, 2016, according to a press release issued by Liuyang Fireworks, a local administration body composed of more than 700 fireworks-related businesses.

Liuyang Fireworks was created in August 2016 to encourage members to consolidate or seek other businesses due to concerns about overcapacity. Companies that leave the business will receive compensation, the body said in a statement.

The output of Liuyang's fireworks industry fell 4.9 percent year-on-year to 18.93 billion yuan ($2.76 billion) in the first eleven months in 2016, according to Liuyang government data released in December 2016.

An employee from a Liuyang-based fireworks manufacturer called Zhongzhou told the Global Times on the condition of anonymity on Thursday that this year the company plans to test the waters in the overseas markets via an acquisition.

Zhang, however, doesn't think exporting fireworks is a cost-effective solution for him because trade regulations and customs inspections grew tighter following several fatal incidents at fireworks factories.

"If the domestic bans remained unchanged, many medium and small-sized businesses like mine will have no choice but to say goodbye to the market," he said.

Sparking debate

The fireworks restrictions have espoused controversy and discontent among residents and enterprises.

On January 16, 250 fireworks manufacturers and related businesses from Central China's Henan Province reportedly signed a petition, urging the provincial government to rescind its ban on fireworks through-out the province during the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays.

Zhang acknowledged that setting off fireworks will generate some air pollution, but he questioned whether a product for occasional celebration could be a major contributor to the problem.

"New efforts to curb the use and sale of fireworks might not be enough to stop a sharp rise in air pollution," Zhang noted.

Zhang's point of view found some support in data from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Despite the recent restrictions, PM2.5 levels in Beijing rocketed 870 percent from 6 pm on January 27 to 2 am on January 28, according to data posted on the ministry's web-site.

A Beijing-based white-collar worker surnamed Chen experienced her first Spring Festival without fireworks this year in her hometown of Yichang, Central China's Hubei Province.

She didn't much care for it, noting that setting off fireworks is one of the oldest traditions of the Chinese New Year celebration.

"Without it, it is too quiet to be a real festival," she told the Global Times on Sunday.

Chen felt disappointed and confused, especially after she found out that the bans did not improved the city's air quality during the holidays.

However, Li Qian, a 31-year-old resident from Xingtai, was OK with the bans. "I think it is good that there are no loud firecrackers in the city during the Spring Festival. My child and I won't be woken up in the wee hours of the morning," Li told the Global Times. "The best part of celebrating the festival is the family get-togethers."

Still, Li doubted whether the fireworks bans had any effect on air pollution.

It is the heavily polluting chemical factories that authorities should pay more attention to, residents and retailers said.

Along the highway from Beijing to Handan in Hebei, which is more than 400 kilometers away from the capital, thick smoke could easily be spotted billowing up from factory smokestacks.

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