Blast Sparks Clampdown on Fireworks

Chinese authorities take a new look at an old custom following deaths and injuries.

Fireworks light the night sky over Beijing to mark the start of the Lunar New Year, Feb. 3, 2011.

Authorities in Beijing have vowed to clamp down on the black market in fireworks after two people died and hundreds were injured in fireworks-related accidents during lunar New Year celebrations.

Two people were killed and 223 were injured in the Chinese capital amid the traditional New Year fireworks frenzy, which began on the first day of the Year of the Rabbit on Wednesday and ended only at noon on Thursday, official media reported.

Two men were killed in an explosion while setting off shoddy fireworks in the early hours of Thursday, according to a statement from the Beijing Municipal Office on Fireworks and Firecrackers.

Another 223 people had suffered eye injuries, burns, and other firework-related injuries as of 2 p.m. Thursday, it said.

The authorities have installed cameras to monitor around 560 licensed firework stalls in Beijing, and say they will use the evidence in investigations into accidents.

Beijing hired 20,000 street cleaners this year to sweep the remaining debris from the streets of the capital on Thursday, Xinhua news agency said.

Children, bystanders injured

Residents of mainland China once confined themselves to letting off a string of noisy firecrackers outside their own front door to frighten off evil spirits as the New Year arrived, but now set off all manner of fireworks to mark the festival.

The municipal bureau of production safety said it had issued firework sales permits to 1,852 retail stalls, which sell 1,500 different varieties of fireworks.

One quarter of the injured seen at Beijing's Tongren Hospital were children, although some were unlucky bystanders or passersby.

Beijing revoked a ban on fireworks in the urban area in 2006 amid public complaints over the lack of "atmosphere" at lunar New year.

They had been banned in most Chinese cities since 1993, amid concerns over environmental pollution and health and safety.

Now, a new set of rules is supposed to restrict the time and places for fireworks and firecrackers.

'Completely unregulated'

But one Beijing resident surnamed Wang said the letting off of fireworks in China's densely populated urban areas is completely unregulated by the authorities.

"There's no order to it," Wang said. "The displays are getting bigger and bigger. There is a problem and I think it's very serious."

"I was walking up and down by the river on the night of lunar New Year and saw smoke from fireworks and firecrackers everywhere. There is also paper everywhere. Nobody controls it," he said.

"When I was in Japan, it's not forbidden there, but they have a whole set of conventions around the setting off of fireworks."

Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang agreed.

"The health and safety management of fireworks events is very poor at the moment," he said. "This isn't the first time an explosion has happened. There was also a fire in a hotel caused by fireworks."

A five-star hotel in the northeastern city of Shenyang was gutted by fire on Thursday following a fireworks display, forcing the evacuation of around 50 people.

And in 2009, China's best-known firework-induced blaze wrote off the new headquarters of state-run broadcaster CCTV, known colloquially as the "underpants."

One fireman was killed and eight were injured in the fire.

Reported by Xin Yu in Mandarin. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.