Beijing began the Year of the Dog Friday with eerily silent streets, as the usual thunderous bursts of firecrackers and fireworks were silenced by a strict ban that sacrifices tradition in the name of an anti-pollution campaign.
Overnight, police patrolled deserted neighbourhoods in the Chinese capital — normally abuzz with excitement as the country welcomes the arrival of the Lunar New Year.
“I never imagined it would be this quiet! It’s usually packed,” said a Beijing resident surnamed Wang who had been out in the city centre following a traditional New Year’s Eve family dinner.
A migrant worker from neighbouring Hebei province surnamed Zhu said that without the firecrackers, “the magic of the New Year is gone”.
The low-key celebrations were in stark contrast to previous years, when the streets were crammed with Beijingers setting off firecrackers and the sky was lit by near-constant firework displays, unleashing a deafening thunder until dawn.
But the tradition, conceived as a way to ward off evil spirits, has this year been targeted by authorities anxious to lower winter pollution levels.
Some 440 Chinese cities have banned the use of firecrackers and fireworks — which are also set off during weddings or when moving house — since last year. Beijing introduced a ban in December.
“Like all Beijingers, I have been lighting firecrackers since I was a child. But times have changed (…) air quality is what matters most to people now,” said a man who gave his surname as Zhang.
The government has launched a huge campaign to reduce pollution during the winter, ordering polluting factories to leave Beijing and its surroundings, and designating “no-coal zones” where more than three million homes have abruptly switched to gas or electric heating.
In 2017, the level of PM2.5 particles — which penetrate deep into the lungs — in Beijing over the New Year was 26 times higher than the level recommended by the World Health Organisation.
But on Friday the sky was a brilliant blue.
“It (the ban) is a good thing, given the disastrous state of the environment,” said Xi, a young student, before adding: “Even if it deprives us of a little pleasure”.
Peace and quiet
Safety is another reason behind the ban. Every year there are numerous accidents caused by pyrotechnics, many of which are of poor quality in China.
Dong Weiwei, a resident who had volunteered to patrol his street, stood ready to alert police should he see anyone flouting the new regulations.
“In the past I have seen people wounded, an eight-year-old child whose finger was blown off by a firecracker explosion,” he said.
In southwestern Yunann province, a fireworks explosion killed four people and injured five others Thursday night, state media said.
The ban has made some happy, including Zhu Ye, an elderly Beijinger who took advantage of the peace and quiet to take her dog Xiao Mi for a nighttime walk.
“I no longer liked it at my age… with the fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, we didn’t dare to go out,” she said.
“But this year, there are not many people in the streets and I am finally able to walk my dog.”
Ahead of New Year celebrations, hundreds of millions of Chinese travel back to their home towns, often on crowded trains, making it in the world’s largest annual human migration.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong a spectacular fireworks display scheduled to mark Lunar New Year was cancelled as the city mourns victims of a deadly bus crash.
A speeding double-decker overturned in northern Hong Kong on Saturday evening, killing 19 and leaving more than 60 injured, some critically.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said residents were grieving and wanted “to express their sombre mood”.
In Shanghai thousands flocked to temples to pray for good fortune.
While in Nepal, exiled Tibetans living in Kathmandu carried images of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as the community — estimated to number in their thousands — gathered to celebrate Lhosar, the Tibetan Lunar New Year, with traditional music and food.