Sat, Aug 29, 2015 - Page 8 News List

Time to extinguish cultural greed

By Chiang Sheng 江盛

Humans are pack animals. People are social creatures, often feeling at home in the hustle and bustle of crowds. Politics is the art of managing crowds, but at the same time it is also about managing economics, finances and public mood.

Modern democracy can be very effective in getting people to work together, but populist sentiment, which is often shortsighted and wasteful, can act as a constraining force. Governments might prefer to call it following the public’s will, but it is more about manipulating public will.

For example, the government puts aside a considerable budget for fireworks displays to celebrate the Lunar New Year and other festivals, giving the broadcasting rights to specific media outlets. The folk version of this is the setting off of firecrackers and the burning of spirit money during Matsu (媽祖) pilgrimages, the lantern festival and Ghost Month.

Taiwan would be a healthier, safer place without these things.

Setting off fireworks and firecrackers and burning spirit money do, of course, please the crowds, but they are certainly not without their dark side. They contribute little, they damage the environment and they can also lead to lung cancer and allergies, in addition to damaging people’s eardrums and polluting the air. Even worse, they eat into taxpayers’ hard-earned money, taking cash that could otherwise have been spent on nutritious school meals for elementary school students, or books or computers for schools, or money to employ more teachers.

Taiwan is a small nation with crowded cities, moderately wealthy, but deep in debt and living beyond its means. Setting off fireworks and firecrackers and burning spirit money merely impoverishes the nation further, exacerbating people’s stress. Worse, neither the government nor the general public seem to be too bothered about the issue of public safety.

Taiwan and China are both afflicted with a preoccupation with fireworks, firecrackers and spirit money and a single-minded, unfettered pursuit of economic development, caring little for safety, health or the environment. Fireworks, firecrackers and spirit money are, put simply, all about greed and self-interest: It is a selfish, ignorant culture that cares little for the effect these things have on others.

People have very short memories. They can get all fired up about adjustments to the high-school curriculum guidelines, but never learn when it comes to the environment, hygiene and health. For example, Taiwanese seem to have forgotten about the death and devastation caused in 2011 when fireworks being offloaded from a truck into a store in New Taipei City caused an explosion. Since then, there have been gas pipe explosions in Kaohsiung and the Formosa Fun Coast inferno.

Taiawn is hardly alone in this. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait there have also been a series of fires caused by fireworks and firecrackers. For example, during the 2008 Dragon Boat Festival, an illegal fireworks display caused damage to China Central Television’s Beijing Television Cultural Center.

Then there were the nearly 6,000 fires or accidents caused by firecrackers in China during the 2011 Lunar New Year that caused 223 injuries and two deaths in Beijing. Only last week there was the huge explosion at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin, unprecedented for this kind of crisis. It does seem that there is something inherently Chinese about this disregard for safety.

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