The Fiery Debate Over China’s Fireworks Bans

As China prepares for Lunar New Year, fireworks are igniting heated discussions on how to balance tradition with safety and environmental concerns

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11:46 AM HKT, Thu January 25, 2024 1 mins read

As the Lunar New Year approaches, China’s age-old tradition of fireworks is igniting a nationwide debate over cultural heritage and environmental caution.


The history of fireworks in China dates back over 2,000 years. Traditionally, fireworks have been an integral part of Lunar New Year celebrations in China, a practice originating from a folktale about them being used to drive away the “nian,” a mythical beast. However, since the first fireworks ban in downtown Beijing in the 1986, fireworks have been disappearing from Chinese cities. In 2017, official data revealed that 444 cities in China had banned fireworks. Shanghai has implemented strict regulations regarding fireworks: the city only permits fireworks outside its densely populated center. Moreover, in 2022, only nine authorized stores throughout the entire city were permitted to sell fireworks.


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A list of stores in Shanghai certified to sell fireworks — all in rural districts. Screenshot via Baidu.


These policies were implemented mainly due to concerns about air pollution and fire safety. Fireworks have the potential to cause serious accidents and property damage in densely populated areas. This combination of environmental and safety concerns led to the fireworks, along with other traditional fire-based crafts like Chinese Sky Lanterns (孔明灯 kǒngmíngdēng), to be banned in many urban population centers.


Arguments surrounding fireworks bans annually rise in prominence around the time of Lunar New Year. However, following years of COVID-19 lockdowns and official reevaluations, this year’s fireworks controversy has been especially heated, in part due to a statement from the People’s Congress citing that county-level total bans conflict with national legislation.


The official state news channel CCTV further fueled the discussion with an article emphasizing the “right of the Chinese people to look up to the splendid fireworks after a year of hard work.”


The online community on platforms like Weibo have actively engaged in the debate. One user questioned the environmental impact, asking, “Are environmental problems really caused by the fireworks during the New Year?” Another expressed nostalgia for past celebrations, lamenting the loss of the festive spirit (年味 niánwèi) and sharing a video of the sky filled with fireworks during the 2000 Lunar New Year.


Conversely, some users opposed lifting the ban. Tagging a video of a fire caused by a rogue firework rocket, one user criticized the supporters, “Is this the festive spirit you want? Air and noise pollution, along with significant safety hazards, [fireworks] should be strictly banned.”


In a Weibo poll of 15,200 users, 1,600 supported a total ban, 3,600 favored allowing fireworks in restricted areas, and 10,000 advocated for a complete repeal of the ban. As more and more cities set up designated areas for fireworks this year, this diversity of opinions sets the stage for a contentious Lunar New Year, where policy and tradition continue to be at odds.


Cover image via Wikipedia.

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