February 10, 2013 8:12 am

China ushers in frugal year of the snake

The Chinese New Year was ushered in this weekend in more subdued fashion than normal, with toned-down displays of fireworks and quieter restaurants following a government drive for frugality.

The crackle of fireworks still resounded throughout Beijing and illuminated the night sky to ring in the Year of the Snake, but the pyrotechnics were restrained compared with past holidays. Sales of fireworks in the five days leading up to the holiday were down 37 per cent from 2012, according to the city government.

This was partly a response to official appeals to light fewer fireworks to avoid adding to the capital’s air pollution, but it was also in line with an official push for less conspicuous spending amid a crackdown on corruption.

Before the holiday week began, state-owned companies and government bodies dramatically scaled back their celebrations for the lunar new year, also known as the spring festival. The China Cuisine Association reported that as many as 60 per cent of restaurants, especially high-end ones, had suffered cancelled reservations.

The restraint was visible on Saturday, the eve of the lunar new year, in a spring festival gala on China Central Television. Watched by as many as 1bn people gathered in homes around the country, the gala is a fixture of the holiday, even if it is routinely mocked for its cheesy song and dance performances.

This year, the state television regulator ordered the broadcaster to curtail the lavishness of the celebration and use fewer showy props. The gala still had plenty of star power, including Canadian singer Celine Dion, but it used the same stage as last year.

State media also rolled out stories about ordinary residents curbing their expenditure. One woman was quoted by the official Xinhua news agency as saying that, along with cutting back on restaurant meals and fireworks, the children in her family would get no more than Rmb50 ($8) in new year’s money.

Without more fundamental changes to the Chinese political system such as strengthening the rule of law, critics say the campaign against corruption and wasteful spending will only address superficial problems and will eventually lose steam.

The decrease in fireworks – a staple of celebrations because they are seen as a way of ensuring good luck for the new year – did at least have a substantial impact on health and safety in Beijing. The city government’s fireworks office reported that 25 people were injured and 83 fires caused by explosives, down 28.6 per cent and 44.6 per cent respectively from last year.

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