Shanghai Street View: Winter Work

Shanghai mobilizes to enforce firecracker ban

This week’s Street View touches on news involving fireworks and bird flu, 2 rites of winter in Shanghai that bring pleasure for some but headaches and even fear for many in the case of bird flu. The first item brought a big smile to my face, as I read that Shanghai will deploy an army of thousands to enforce a complete ban on fireworks inside the outer ring road throughout the Spring Festival period. The second item was a bit more ominous, as the city reported the first 2 cases of humans infected with the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus this year.

Both of these stories come as we head into our coldest period of winter, with temperatures set to hit some of their lowest levels in years under the influence of a super cold front. It’s during times like these that people look to festive activities like setting off fireworks to add some cheer to the otherwise cold and Spartan winter atmosphere.

It’s also times like these that kick off the annual flu season, which has become a worrisome rite of winter over the last few years due to the emergence of the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus back in 2013. The deadly element of that particular virus strain has injected an element of dread and some fear into our annual flu seasons, and it looks like this year will be no different.

Let’s begin with the more upbeat news, at least for me, which is seeing Shanghai take a move that was long overdue by completely banning all firework sales and use within the Outer Ring road that encompasses all of old Shanghai, including my home in Hongkou District.

The city announced the ban a while ago and it took effect this year. But now it has taken the unusual measure of announcing the mobilization of an army of thousands to strictly enforce the ban at all times during the upcoming holiday. That includes not only Lunar New Year’s Eve and Day, but also the noisy welcoming of the God of Wealth and Lantern Festival that fall during the first 15 days of the New Year.

To make sure that everyone follows the rules, Shanghai is deploying at least 20,000 police, as well as a much larger army of 260,000 volunteers to look for and stop people from illegally selling and setting off fireworks. Since the ban went into effect, police have issued more than 200,000 yuan ($30,000) in fines, and confiscated more than 14,000 boxes of fireworks.

Publicity and Enforcement

I personally want to commend the city for taking this ground-breaking move, and also for publicizing its enforcement efforts and trying to educate the public about why it’s taking the action. Of course my enthusiasm is a big selfish, since I personally don’t set off firecrackers and find the noise, smoke and all the trash afterwards quite a nuisance and even dangerous.

Supporters of the custom always argue that setting off fireworks is a centuries-old Chinese tradition, and adds to the festive atmosphere during the Spring Festival. But they fail to realize the custom was less problematic for most of that time because China was a rural society, and the tradition is far less dirty and dangerous when practiced in the open countryside that is far less densely populated than a major city like Shanghai.

Next there was the city’s confirmation of the season’s first two cases of people infected with the deadly H7N9 bird flu virus. There wasn’t much detail beyond the reports of the two cases, which occurred in 2 people in their 50s. The city added that both had been declared out of danger, but were still being held in the hospital for observation.

As someone who lived through the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong and the more recent H7N9 bird flu outbreak in humans here in Shanghai 3 years ago, I can vividly remember the paranoia and worry that filled both cities at the time. Neither of the last 2 years saw a major return of the bird flu virus to Shanghai, thanks in no small part to city efforts that included strong public awareness campaigns combined with other efforts like quick reporting of new cases and banning the sale of live chickens.

At the end of the day, there’s a certain inevitability surrounding both fireworks and bird flu as we head into the heart of winter, as both have become a part of the seasonal fabric. I’m a tad skeptical the fireworks ban can be completely enforced due to the strength of the tradition, and it’s also likely we’ll see another few dozen cases of bird flu this year before the winter ends. But at least the city is doing its part in trying to tame these 2 winter phenomena, using its increasingly effective approach of strong public awareness campaigns combined with effective enforcement and preventative measures.

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