The Yin, the Yang, and the Bang-Bang

Somewhere in East Wangjing

Watching people from Star Group prepare for a pitch

0931 hrs.

On the morning after the 40-story bonfire that turned Beijing’s nearly finished Mandarin Oriental Hotel and Television Cultural Center (TVCC) (known locally as “the boot” for its shape) into a smoking, twisted hulk, speculation and accusation continue about the cause. Many suggest that errant fireworks are to blame. As the building was owned by one of China’s most powerful state-owned entities, China Central Television, the investigation into the fire and the report on its causes will undoubtedly become a political football, so we may never know what truly happened.

Shooting Yourself in “the Boot”

If fireworks were a contributing factor, the Chinese government will face a dilemma. If it does nothing, it risks the continued (and growing, as the nation grows more prosperous) sequence of tragedies large and small that accompany the use of pyrotechnics and high explosives by the inexperienced and inebriated.

If, on the other hand, the government takes the logical step of restricting the manufacture, distribution, sale, and use of fireworks, it risks widespread popular discontent (fireworks are not only a cultural mainstay, they are arguably more of a national icon than the flag) and the decimation of a large seasonal industry.

In short, the entire issue places the two imperatives that guide Chinese policy making at odds with each other: the Confucian obligation for the ruler to act as parent to the nation on the one hand, and the growing importance of continued popular support as China’s polity evolves on the other.

Between the economic downturn that is putting an estimated 20 million people out of work and the political sensitivity of key historic milestones in 2009, sustaining popular support is going to be a particular challenge this year.

As such, I do not expect a major crackdown on fireworks. Instead, I think the government will take what will amount to token action to restrict fireworks that in scope and enforcement will amount to just enough to avert a major calamity.

Rantings of a Pyrophobe

All of which is a pity. If there was ever any issue on which the government should behave in loco parentis, this is it.

For some perspective, this is what I wrote about the fireworks issue two years ago (and pardon me in advance for the rant):

Xinhua is reporting that fireworks in Beijing have killed one person and injured 270 over the Chinese New Year.

You see, this is where I start to have a serious problem with moral relativism. You say it is part of China’s culture to set off fireworks and has been for a thousand years. I say it’s wrong.

I say look at the pollution and litter caused by fireworks.

At the factory explosions that level entire city blocks.

At the fires that destroy homes and lives.

And, of course, the toll of dead and injured.

Fireworks are made of gunpowder. Gunpowder was created to kill people and break things. Fireworks are an accidental, incidental application of the material.

For a little perspective on what we’re talking about, police in Beijing confiscated 560 million illegal fireworks this year. At an average of, say, one gram of high explosive per, that’s about 1.3 million pounds of TNT. To put this into perspective, a fully-loaded B-52 Stratofortress bomber carries 51 500-lb Mk-82 Snake Eye bombs. That means that just the illegal fireworks confiscated in Beijing would fill 50 B-52 bombers. And that’s not even taking into consideration the 380,000 crates of fireworks sold legally, which at (I’m guessing) 10 lbs per crate, would fill another 150 heavy bombers.

Allowing millions of pounds of high explosives into the hands of people who have neither training nor the understanding of pyrotechnics to handle them safely seems to me a pretty straightforward example of a really bad idea.

In any culture.

None of this means that fireworks have to go away. It just means that the handling of fireworks above a certain (very small) size would need to be left in the hands of well-trained, licensed, and insured technicians.

I suspect we will get there eventually. The only question is how many people must suffer in the meantime.


Wire services are now reporting that the culprits were actually a “professional” fireworks company from Hunan province who were hired by CCTV to set off the pyrotechnics. See my point above about “well-trained, licensed” technicians.

As opposed, say, to those with a little guanxi and just enough competence to make them dangerous.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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