Approaching China's Lunar New Year, which this year fell on February 19, an online picture of two street cleaners asking for fewer firecrackers to be set off went viral and generated widespread interest.
The couple was photographed standing in a street holding a heart-shaped card calling on young people to cut back on the number of firecrackers they used so that they would be able to return home earlier for a reunion dinner with their family. Their message ended with the words. "Thank you for your cooperation."
The female member of the pair, surnamed Zhou, who has been a street cleaner for 14 years, said that she and her husband usually get to go home at midnight on Lunar New Year's Eve and have to get up at about 4 a.m. the following morning to clear the remains of firecrackers.
The response to the picture has been generally positive. Many people pledged that they would not set off firecrackers during Spring Festival festivities. However, other netizens subjected the photo to mockery and derision, using the Photoshop software to alter the picture and adding captions satirically claiming, for instance, that people should send fewer express packages in order to enable couriers to get back home earlier.
Though they are an important part of the Spring Festival, a celebration dating back thousands of years, fireworks create smog and release harmful substances, increasing the concentration of pollutants. Around the country, controls have been put in place on their use with varying degrees of severity in recent years. However, many people are reluctant to break ties with this custom. Also, while some sympathized with the couple and their hardworking comrades, others argued that removing the waste products of fireworks from the streets represents their primary duty. It is therefore easy to understand why this well-intentioned picture was ridiculed through the comparison of cleaners to workers in other service sectors.
Chen Fang (The Beijing News): I am opposed to the excessive setting off of fireworks. When I first saw this picture, I was deeply touched and thought to myself that it really isn't easy for street cleaners to clean streets plastered in firework remains, while others enjoy their family reunions, carefree. Their pleas to the public deserve our attention.
The topic of whether or not to ban fireworks during the Spring Festival has been debated for years without a reached consensus. Cutting down on firecrackers used may well meet the requirements of some for a tranquil Spring Festival unencumbered by either air or noise pollution, but when street cleaners are used as tools to discourage people from setting off fireworks, many feel somewhat that they are being morally blackmailed. The logic in play here can be inferred as follows: Street cleaners work strenuously throughout the year to keep the environment clean, and their plea for fewer firecrackers during the Spring Festival is therefore both understandable and justifiable. Thus, if you do not respond in the affirmative to their plea, then it follows that you have low moral standards.
The photograph is accompanied neither by pleas for better working conditions for street cleaners nor by condemnation of those who set off fireworks wherever and whenever they want to. Perhaps the focus is meant to be on the fundamental rights of cleaners, but the way it has been presented makes it at best morally dubious. As a result, some people who felt that an attempt was being made to emotionally manipulate them tended instead to make fun of the picture, rather than being persuaded to cease or reduce their use of fireworks.