BEIJING - The world's most populous country welcomed the Year of the Snake this weekend with a fete featuring entertainment and traditional foods but fewer fireworks.
The traditionally ear-splitting barrage on China's most important holiday seemed a bit muted as residents heeded official calls to set off fewer fireworks in an effort to curb air pollution.
Sales of fireworks from Tuesday to Saturday fell 37% over the same period last year, from 410,000 cartons to 260,000, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, citing figures from the city government. The city authorized 1,337 fireworks stands this year, down from 1,429 last year, and allowed 750,000 cartons of fireworks to go on sale, down from 810,000.
Beijing saw 25 injuries Saturday night and 83 fire emergencies related to fireworks, down almost 29% and 45%, respectively, from last year. Last year's fireworks display created a thick haze that sent 2.5 microgram pollution levels as high as 1,500.
China's capital saw almost twice the number of smoggy days as usual this January, and levels of small particle air pollution went off the charts at times.
Chinese folk artists perform during the Spring Festival Temple Fair on Sunday in Beijing.(Photo: Lintao Zhang, Getty Images)
Despite the concerns, fireworks could still be found around the region Saturday as residents gathered with family to mark the annual Lunar New Year, sharing their hopes for the year ahead.
In an alley in central Beijing, Bao Guozhen lit a large, box-like firework.
"We do this to scare away the evil spirits, it's our tradition, and I've loved doing it ever since I was 5," said Bao, 38.
Retired city official Li Hongguo, who spent the day making dumplings for his family and watching state broadcaster CCTV's long-running New Year show, decried the sharp increases in vegetable prices in the past six months.
"Ordinary people most want commodity prices to stay stable, and any rise must be close to rises in income," said Li, 59.
For her New Year's wish, Ge Yali, one of the security volunteers mobilized to keep order over the weekend, said, "Beijing must improve its air quality, maybe by controlling automobile emissions."
Setting off firecrackers in eastern Beijing, private businessman Wang Zhongquan took aim at a holdover from China's stricter socialist past that continues to deny Wang and his family full urban rights after years living here as one of millions of migrant workers who keep China's cities moving.
"I wish China could cancel the household registration system in the future, then my son could attend college entrance exam in Beijing," said Wang, 36, who sells interior decoration materials. If that fails, Wang hopes he'll earn enough in the future so his son, 11, can study abroad.
Nearby, kindergarten teacher Xu Jinjin set off fireworks with her parents and expressed two hopes for the future. "I wish I could find a good boyfriend in the New Year," said Xu, 26. "And I wish our country could have less corrupt officials."?
Xi Jinping - who took over as Communist Party leader in November and will assume the less important post of state president in March - has been pressing a campaign against corruption, but his lack of movement toward political change may frustrate some.
Xi will face an early test of his leadership in how China resolves a territorial dispute over a group of uninhabited islets - known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China - that are controlled by Japan. In recent months, China has sent ships and planes into Japanese waters and airspace.
China's recent approach to the maritime disputes has worried both Washington and Asian neighbors. The Diaoyu dispute has fanned a wave of nationalism and renewed China's anti-Japanese sentiment. This Lunar New Year, the dispute inspired one Beijing firework firm to produce brands called "Tokyo Big Explosions" and "I love the Diaoyu Islands."
A Chinese marine surveillance ship spent Saturday close to the Diaoyu, and the Xinhua news agency had reporters on board.
"Although we often passed the Lunar New Year at sea, it is the first time in waters near the Diaoyu Islands. It is very meaningful," official Hu Zhilai said.
Contributing: Sunny Yang; the Associated Press