China fire ignites debate over fireworks

Police suspect fireworks to be the cause of the blaze at the 40-story Mandarin Oriental.
Public debate over fireworks is taking over China’s online chatter, ignited by Monday’s tragic blaze in central Beijing which left one of China’s most treasured modern buildings in cinders, killing one fireman and injuring several bystanders.

Police on Thursday announced they had detained 12 people, including four employees of China’s state television station CCTV. They are being held as suspects for setting off large firecrackers next to the newly constructed Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a flagship property of the hotel chain. The blaze happened on Monday night in the final hours of the Lunar New Year festivities. Traditionally, the Chinese celebrate by lighting up the skies with fireworks. But Beijing officials are accusing CCTV employees of setting off heavy-duty fireworks, which are banned in densely populated areas such as central Beijing, CRI stated. The firefighter who was killed died of smoke inhalation and seven others were injured during Monday’s blaze. China –the birthplace of gunpowder and pyrotechnics — is questioning whether the ancient use of fireworks during traditional celebrations should be banned. Internet censors have tried to damp down public debate, unsuccessfully. In Beijing’s restaurants, bars and local media, discussions run amok on the fireworks debate, an issue which has stirred up emotions with some deep cultural roots. On Xinhuanet, Internet users are voting with their mouse. As of February 11, of 6,700 people who voiced their opinion online, 69 percent supported a ban.

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One voter complained that “fireworks polluted the environment, shook windows, set off alarms and scared children upstairs.” “Not all traditions are good,” said another voter. “Fireworks are among the bad ones because it brings pollution, waste of resources and causes injuries. For people with hypertension, festivals have become like horrible wars.” Still another proponent notes that “many enterprises and agencies are merely competing to show off who among them is the richest by setting off the most expensive fireworks, so fireworks is worth nothing more than bringing happiness to a few people.” Opponents of the ban are just as passionate. “Designate places for fireworks as we do for smoking,” argues one. “Don’t ban things randomly.” Argues another: “We can’t ban this Chinese tradition because of the CCTV fire, in the same way that we can’t stop raising chicken for fear of wolf, or turn highways into dirt road for fear of accidents or even stop drinking milk for fear of tainted milk.” Mike Furst, a longtime expatriate Beijing resident offers an alternative: “There are so many easier ways to do this other than an outright ban — permits, restricted sales, etc.” Even the state-run China Youth Daily weighed in with a commentary, arguing that imposing a ban would be a simplistic and crude administrative interference.

“As a time-honored Chinese tradition,” it opines, “burning fireworks can add festive atmosphere and is an essential part of Spring Festival celebration. The root cause for fire disasters is not simply the burning of fireworks, but the illegal and misguided conducts of human beings.” Fireworks were once banned in many Chinese cities by government edict. A few years ago, bans were lifted also by government edict.