Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Un-Happy New Year

A traditional Lunar New Year's celebration in China was interrupted and dispersed by local officials, according to the New York Times.

[C]iting numerous injuries that result from the downpour of fireworks, officials in the city of Dejiang banned the dragons from the city center this year and designated a ring road on the outskirts as the official staging ground... An employee of the Health Department in Dejiang, reached by telephone, said that at least 10 people were injured each year, some of whom, following local tradition, set off the fireworks on their bodies. “The government issued the ban in several busy streets to safeguard the people’s security,” said the official, who declined to give his name.

Apparently not everyone complied with the new rules. Ma Bo, 26, a cellphone repairman, said that the troupes simply took to their old haunts on Sunday and that the police responded with force. In the resulting clash, dragon heads were crushed and the fabric that makes up the serpent-like bodies was torn.

Bearing their shattered dragons, the distraught performers marched to Dejiang’s government offices to demand justice. A crowd of 2,000 people followed, and the police met them with batons. The two hours of clashes that followed came to an end after officers used pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

The Chinese government is downplaying the violence while praising local authorities for using online bulletin boards, text messages and other information age resources to advise the community of the changes and advocate for a safe event. Critics, of course, are condemning the same authorities for quashing free expression and being more obsessed with social stability than public safety. Given the number of injuries documented by the authorities and the number of participants indicated by the article it's rather an open question.

The dragon dance the police interrupted is a ritual for good luck and prosperity, things China will certainly need this year.

For the politically conscious, while the handling of fireworks described in the article are (certainly from a safety perspective) foolhardy in general, overreaction to public displays has been a hallmark of Chinese domestic policy since Mao. I can understand the authorities not wanting fools burning themselves with firecrackers needlessly, but I can't say I think batons and pepper spray significantly less injurious as applied, and the firework-related injury statistics quoted by officialdom are very low, which gives credibility to the critics.

For the superstitious among us, 2009 was already going to be a bad year, and we'll need all the good fortune we can get. China has, in this sense, just stepped on its own feet in a big way. Bad luck for China - who has a mounting trade surplus with the United States and holds a good deal of its debt as a consequence - is bad luck for the US: if the Chinese economy falters, or if demand for their products in the US drops substantially, China might be tempted to cash in some of the bonds it holds. Right now the US is in no position to pay up. If the US defaults on that debt the likelihood it will fall into the same spiral we saw in Argentina a few years back increases.

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