x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

China hopes for safe New Year celebrations

Fireworks are an essential part of China's new year parties - there are an estimated 900,000 boxes on sale in Beijing alone - but insufficient attention to safety has proved deadly.

BEIJING // The Chinese new year celebrations in the capital in 2009 were more spectacular than anyone could have imagined.

When China Central Television (CCTV) employees held a fireworks party near their new headquarters building, they started a blaze that engulfed the newly built "television cultural centre" tower that was part of Beijing's most architecturally daring development.

Smoke billowed across the sky and one fireman died trying to tackle the blaze, the cost of which state media conservatively put at more than 160 million yuan (Dh89.1m) and other observers suggested was more than 4 billion yuan.

Two years on from the fire, with the development still fenced off by billboards, and with China now approaching another round of new-year festivities, it remains a highly visible and embarrassing reminder of the dangers of fireworks in a country where the explosives are steeped in tradition. Many people believe they ward off evil spirits.

The cutting-edge tower, designed by the renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhas, was just three months away from opening when it was gutted. It was to have housed a high-end hotel, a public theatre and recording studios.

CCTV's move from a slightly shabby tower block at the other end of the city into its new headquarters, a striking building of two towers linked at the top, was delayed because of the blaze at the adjacent television cultural centre, coverage of which was heavily restricted on state media.

The authorities found 71 people to blame for the incident, ranging from the men who trucked in the fireworks to officials from a company that supplied substandard building materials, and jail terms of up to seven years were handed out.

Finally, in August last year, repair work began on the tower, with Mr Koolhas having said structurally it remained sound despite being gutted.

Fire safety is currently high on the agenda after 58 died in a Shanghai tower block blaze in November, so when locals see in the Year of the Rabbit tomorrow evening, authorities hope to prevent a recurrence of the 2009 fiasco and reduce a fireworks death toll that last year reached 35 in the first few days of the Chinese New Year.

In the past few months there have been multiple deaths from fireworks. A blast at a fireworks factory in Henan province killed 10 and injured 21, while a dozen people were killed in November in two more incidents at manufacturers. Most seriously, a blast at a fireworks producer in Heilongjiang province in August killed 33 people.

These fatalities came despite the shutting down of small workshops, which have been known to have below-par safety standards. Already, the number of fireworks producers has dropped from more than 10,000 in 2005 to 5,000, and the authorities hope to reduce the total further.

Yet the huge enthusiasm the public has for fireworks - more than 900,000 boxes are on sale in the capital alone according to local media reports - makes ensuring their safe use difficult. In Beijing, the authorities outlawed their use in central areas for more than a decade, until pressure forced them to lift the ban five years ago.

About 7,000 firefighters will be on duty in the capital tomorrow, when residents see in the new year at the start of celebrations that will continue for more than two weeks.

"All the firefighters will have uniforms on and be on high alert," Luo Yuan, a spokesperson for Beijing municipal public security bureau of fire protection, told state media.

There have been calls for people not to let off firecrackers in Beijing, especially as after three months without rain the city and its surroundings are at a particularly high risk from fire.

On Sunday the authorities said fireworks and firecrackers would be banned in parts of Beijing's central business district.

According to Yik Waihung, a fire safety specialist and professor in the department of building service engineering at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, it is difficult to control how fireworks are used.

Regulations include a 30kg limit on the amount of fireworks individuals can store, and the authorities are clamping down on illegal and counterfeit fireworks, having seized thousands of boxes this year.

"I think with the recent incidents with fires in buildings, they're tying to tighten controls and be more serious about these controls," Professor Yik said.

"There is always the risk people ignore the regulations and controls, especially in the rural areas where they want to celebrate the festival."

dbardsley@thenational.ae