China on Sunday brought in the Lunar New Year and the Year of the Snake with unusually quiet celebrations, amid campaigns by the government to tackle rising pollution and to promote austerity as part of a drive against "extravagance" and corruption.
The week-long New Year holiday, known as the Spring Festival in China, is usually ushered in with fireworks celebrations in the capital and elsewhere. But with Beijing and other cities, in recent weeks, grappling with the worst smog problem in decades, authorities have moved to tone down the fireworks displays.
This year, the number of franchised fireworks shops has been reduced to 1,337 from 1,429 in 2012, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
As of Sunday, 750,000 cartons of fireworks had been put on sale, down by 8 per cent from last year.
The bursting of fireworks for the Lunar Year is a Chinese tradition, a custom to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. The government has even enlisted the support of Buddhist and Taoist priests to encourage the public to burst fewer firecrackers.
Li Xinjun, a head priest at the White Cloud temple, a popular site for Taoists, posted a message on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging website used by more than 300 million Chinese, asking people to "refrain from burning incense and setting off large amounts of fireworks for the purpose of bringing themselves great fortune", the China Daily reported.
Campaign against waste
This year’s New Year celebrations were also taking place amid a government campaign against extravagance and waste, launched by the Communist Party of China’s new leader Xi Jinping.
Mr. Xi has banned government departments from hosting large banquets – another tradition on the eve of the Lunar New Year – while the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) has stopped
broadcasting commercials for luxury goods saying they "spread incorrect values and help create a bad social ethos".
In keeping with the more sober celebrations, Mr. Xi spent the eve of the New Year visiting a subway train station, a local police branch and a Beijing sanitation office.
He called on the public to “respect the city's cleaners and cherish the environment”, ahead of a week that usually leaves the capital’s streets littered with fireworks and waste from celebrations.
"Everyone should save resources," Mr. Xi said, "and avoid waste".