February 12, 2013 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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BEIJING — Fireworks are exploding across Beijing every night this week to scare away spirits and usher in good luck for the lunar new year. Yet the sky is darker than in years past.

The beginning of the Year of the Snake, traditionally a symbol of wealth, coincides with an official austerity drive: The Chinese government has asked residents to set off fewer fireworks.

This measure is ostensibly designed to prevent pollution levels from spiking. (Many air-quality readings were off the charts in Beijing in January.) But the move is also part of a broader campaign against ostentatious spending recently announced by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping.

Government agencies and state-owned corporations have curtailed or canceled their new year’s parties. The state broadcaster, CCTV, pointed out that its lavish Spring Festival Gala, which attracts one billion viewers, was more modest than usual: It used the same stage as in past years. (Who knows, though, how much Celine Dion was paid to sing in Chinese.)

Another part of the campaign has been an effort to reduce gross waste at meals. According to Xinhua, China discards enough food every year to feed 200 million people — a staggering figure especially in a country that just a few decades ago experienced the worst famine in history.

Ordering too much food in restaurants and saving the most expensive dishes for last, by which point guests are too full to enjoy them, is a point of pride for many Chinese, a matter of having “face.” An embarrassed Chinese friend once called me a peasant for finishing my plate at a meal in a pricey European-cuisine restaurant. Our host, a local official, had ordered two main courses per person.

But now no more, or so the government has instructed, and as with food, so too with pyrotechnic displays. Firework sales in Beijing last week were down 37 percent from the same period last year.

This austerity drive may produce some good, like fewer accidents: Last Saturday evening injuries in Beijing were down 29 percent from the year before, according to the city government. But fewer fireworks and more somber parties will not get to the core causes of waste: the legions of Chinese officials who take bribes and siphon off government funds.

No one is being fooled by the campaign. One joke circulating this weekend on China’s Twitter, Sina Weibo, compared two photographs of a Chinese star; one from this year’s gala, the other from a past performance. The more recent shot revealed a reduced bust. “This is a clear demonstration of restraint the government has wanted,” read one popular post.

Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

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