Beijing tightens grip on fireworks

Xinhua, February 8, 2011

Fireworks set off in Beijing on February 2, 2011. []

Fireworks set off in Beijing on February 2, 2011. []

Beijing authorities have cracked down on clandestine sales of shoddy and extra loud fireworks in towns bordering Hebei Province to minimize fire risks and injuries in the capital.

With memories of the 2009 fire near the new offices of CCTV, the national television network, still fresh and two deaths last week caused by shoddy fireworks, the municipal public security bureau has set up checkpoints in towns on the Beijing-Hebei border to stop shoddy products from entering the city proper.

Liu Zhendong, a Beijing-born sales clerk, said he did not make his routine fireworks shopping trip to Gu'an, a small town in Hebei that is separated from Beijing's southwestern Daxing District by only one road.

"My colleagues who went there two weeks ago were stopped by police, their trunks were searched and they were told to light up all the fireworks right there," said Liu.

Many Beijingers choose to buy fireworks in Gu'an or Yanjiao, a satellite town neighboring Tongzhou District in eastern Beijing, where loud, powerful and long-lasting fireworks, which are never found at Beijing's fireworks stalls, were widely available at low prices.

In Gu'an, vendors could be seen waving fireworks packages at the roadside whenever a car with Beijing license plates was in sight. Strings of 2,000 firecrackers sold for 20 yuan, less than half the retail price at Beijing's 560 franchised stalls.

Though some early birds had smuggled in fireworks before the franchised stalls started business on Jan. 29, many like Liu avoided taking the risk.

Beijing accountant Wang Chunyan said she felt this year's festive bangs were not as loud as previous years. "Also, I haven't heard a fire engine, even once."

The Chinese set off fireworks to see in the New Year in a centuries-old custom to scare away evil spirits.

The debate over whether the explosives should be allowed in a modern society has continued for at least two decades. City authorities banned fireworks altogether for 13 years starting in the mid 1990s, but were forced to lift the ban by enthusiasts who held that "banning fireworks uproots traditional culture."

Looming risk

Though the toll booths from Gu'an and Yanjiao to Beijing are heavily guarded by police from Hebei and Beijing, some vendors give their customers directions to escape detection.

"Jingkai Expressway is not the only route into Beijing. Just make a detour -- drive west to Daguang Expressway and then drive northeast back to Beijing," a fireworks vendor in Gu'an told customers. "I promise there's no checkpoint on that route."

A trip on the alternative route takes just 30 minutes.

Ma Li, an officer in charge of fireworks supervision at Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, said Chinese fireworks were categorized A, B, C and D, from the strongest to the mildest.

"Only C and D levels are allowed in Beijing. Fireworks sold in Gu'an are often of B, or even C, level and are highly hazardous," said Ma.

The two men who died in explosions last week had both set off fireworks from outside the capital, said a statement from the Beijing Office on Fireworks and Firecrackers.

Shoddy fireworks were also to blame for 233 injuries Wednesday night, the eve of the Lunar New Year, it said.

At Beijing's Tongren Hospital, the city's leading center for eye injuries, 78 of the 85 patients injured by fireworks received eye operations. A quarter of them were children, said Dr. Lu Hai.

Since October last year, Beijing has disposed of 7,500 boxes of illegal fireworks, mostly from Hebei and Tianjin, said a spokesman with Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau.

Before the Spring Festival, the bureau installed cameras at all 560 franchised fireworks stalls in the city proper to detect clandestine deals of substandard products.

The videos could help in investigations into fireworks-triggered injuries or fires.

According to rules issued in 2006, Beijing residents are allowed to set off fireworks within the Fifth Ring Road all day on the Lunar New Year's Eve and Lunar New Year's Day, and from 7 am to midnight every day until the Lantern Festival, the 15th day of the first lunar month.