He Jianwu, a fireworks manufacturer in Hunan Province, is alarmed by the fact that the public now considers fireworks to be a major contributor to China's hazardous air pollution as well as frequent accidents during festivals.
Based in Liuyang, a city dubbed "the world's largest fireworks-manufacturing base," He owns the Dream Fireworks company, which makes some 7,500 tons of firecrackers and fireworks every year and sells 70 percent of them abroad. Recently he's been worried by the many protests against fireworks, and his company has received several requests for refunds and canceled two firework shows planned for the New Year.
Following a deadly firework explosion in Henan Province earlier this month, which killed 10 and injured 11 as a fireworks-laden truck exploded in Yichang on a smoggy morning, causing part of the expressway bridge to collapse, massive public debates broke out over whether it's time to ban fireworks. The smog that blanketed the middle and eastern parts of China in January led to grave health risks for residents, which some argued was exacerbated during Spring Festival by the fireworks. In addition, each year people are killed or injured when playing with fireworks, further fueling demands they be scrapped.
"I wanted to expand further into the domestic market this year but recent online discussions and media reports have ruined my plan," he said. He's products are mostly sold in Shandong and Hunan, and his plans to gain market share in Zhejiang and Beijing now seem impossible, he said.
The debates, which involve overwhelmingly aggressive criticism of fireworks, have led to a grim picture for He and other people in the industry, as fireworks sales dropped in many cities during the past Spring Festival. Some cities including Hebi in Henan Province also cancelled their New Year firework shows this year due to fears of deteriorating air quality.
Compared with last year, there was a 45 percent reduction in fireworks sales in Beijing from February 9 to 14, the five most celebrated days and favorite period for fireworks, according to the capital's fireworks authorities. In cities such as Shenyang in Liaoning, Hangzhou in Zhejiang and Leshan in Sichuan, fireworks also became less popular and some dealers say it was their worst New Year's sales period ever.
The capital also experienced fewer instances of fire alarms going off when compared to previous years, as well as fewer people injured by fireworks, according to health officials, but 169 people were still hospitalized.
"Some people just refuse to be convinced until they're faced with the grim reality. I'm all for a permanent ban on fireworks, at least in Beijing first, so that fewer people will get injured or exposed to unhealthy air," said Zhang Pengfei, a Beijing-based public interest lawyer.
Zhang filed a court appeal against the Beijing work safety administration on January 31, asking the government to revoke the business permits issued to eight fireworks companies in Beijing.
"My friends and I felt very uncomfortable because of the smog. Manufacturers and government supervising bodies are partly responsible," Zhang told the Global Times. Although the court turned down his appeal, Zhang said everybody is obliged to protect the environment and is entitled to file complaints.
Guangzhou was the first Chinese city to issue a total ban on fireworks when the city government issued a regulation in 1992 that banned selling or using fireworks throughout the entire city. Amid an increasing number of fireworks-related accidents, Beijing followed by banning fireworks in 1993, and many other cities announced similar prohibition decrees.
However, the bans were not well enforced. Some residents still hold on to the traditions of playing with fireworks at festivals, and crackdowns on illegal fireworks producers and sellers proved ineffective. In 2005, the Beijing government modified the regulations and began allowing fireworks within the Fifth Ring Road, albeit with certain restrictions in terms of issuing permits and ensuring product quality.
Currently, policies on fireworks differ throughout China. For example, Shenzhen only allows grand fireworks shows or ceremonies that have governmental approval, while in Shijiazhuang and Tianjin, residents can play with fireworks at certain places and times of day during the Spring Festival holiday.
After hours of fireworks on Chinese New Year's eve in 2012, the density of PM2.5 (airborne particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) at 2 am increased sharply to 1,593 micrograms per cubic meter at one downtown monitoring station, 80 times the readings of the previous evening and 1.5 times higher than the year's most polluted day in Beijing. Environmental officials said fireworks affected the air quality to some extent, and media reports over the past few months have also showed hospitals receiving more patients than usual with respiratory ailments.
"Playing with firecrackers on heavily polluted days could deliver a final blow to the capital's air quality," said Dong Liangjie, an environmental expert and former researcher at the University of Hawaii. But emissions from coal and gas burning, motor vehicle exhaust, industrial pollution, and fumes from cooking are the four major contributors of air pollution in big cities during festivals, he explained.
Those involved in the firework industry are keen to point out that fireworks aren't necessarily the major factor at play. Zhang Zhijian, the editor-in-chief of the Liuyang Daily who was previously the official responsible for overseeing the Liuyang firework industry told the Global Times that the negative effect fireworks have on air quality is so trivial that it's negligible given the air's ability to purify itself.
"The smoke from fireworks quickly clears away and doesn't have a long-term impact," said Zhang, adding that Liuyang is an area known for frequent use of firecrackers, and 99.7 of the time each year it has good air.
Industry gets burned
Some verified Sina Weibo users and news organizations started calling for a national ban on fireworks after the Yichang bridge collapse, and a Weibo poll showed that more than half Web users surveyed were in favor of the proposal. Zhang disagrees.
"The negative aspects of fireworks are exaggerated in media reports, which is groundless and pure slander," he said.
Advocates of a fireworks ban, however, also cite safety concerns. Each year, hospitals across China report incidents of accidents involving fireworks. He Jianwu, however, said accidents could be avoided if people bought products that met standards and ignited them within the suggested distances and locations. Accidents do occur in Liuyang, he said, but most of them are minor incidents that take place in fireworks companies because employees have not followed standard procedures.
The State Administration of Work Safety released a notice Saturday emphasizing stricter management and control of the firework industry. The administration will enhance safety inspections, and practice tighter permit-issuing standards, while cutting down on the number of fireworks manufacturers, the notice said.
China's fireworks industry is shrinking amid tighter restrictions, including in major manufacturing areas such as Hunan and Shaanxi, a Beijing News report said.
For example, Liuyang will reduce the number of firework factories from the current 900 to 600 by the end of 2015. Shaanxi announced it would eliminate less productive factories, while Liaoning, Sichuan and Beijing also cleared out their manufacturing factories over the past decade.
Zhang said the industry in Liuyang has been becoming more regulated in terms of fireworks' production, delivery, and the ignition process.
In January, deputies to local two sessions in Beijing raised proposals for lawmakers to reactivate the fireworks ban which was aborted in 2003.
But Gao Wei, a folklore expert and director of the Beijing Society of History and Geography told the Global Times it is better to leave it to the public to decide whether to restrict fireworks instead of waiting for a government regulation.
Playing with fireworks is a Chinese tradition passed down from people's ancestors and it indicates a desire to prevent bad luck as well as deliver hopes for the New Year, Gao said, adding that it would be unreasonable to remove them from public life.
Greener and safer fireworks or their alternatives, such as electronic fireworks that mimic the sound and visual of real fireworks, might be a better solution than requesting residents follow directions, Gao said.
"I used to fill my drawer with different kinds of firecrackers when I was little and light them all during the New Year holiday," said He Yongzhen, a 37-year-old cellphone software programmer in Beijing, "but now there are fewer children favoring fireworks at festivals especially as various digital intelligent products become their newest toys."
"New Year without the sight and sound of fireworks would not be like a real festival at all," said He Yongzhen, also a volunteer with the environmental organization Friends of Nature. He suggested softer measures be taken rather than depriving the public of their traditions.