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A Chinese man stands at the building entrance of his home as fireworks explode in the sky minutes after midnight in Beijing on Jan. 24. / Rolex Dela Pena, epa

BEIJING ?? China greeted the Year of the Horse on Thursday night with a deafening barrage of fireworks and firecrackers, though the customary display was slightly muted due to government campaigns against pollution, waste and corruption.

The sound and fury reached their most intense around midnight of the Lunar New Year's Eve in China's traditional calendar as citizens welcomed the "Spring Festival," China's most important holiday. The explosive fireworks are believed to banish evil spirits and ensure good fortune in the year ahead.

But fireworks firms may see their fortunes ebb in the new year. Many companies report lower sales this year after government officials and green groups asked people not to add polluting pyrotechnics to China's already smoggy skies.

The ruling Communist Party has also cracked down on wasteful public spending, which in the past has included fireworks, and corruption.

At a street-side stall in southeast Beijing, Panda Fireworks saleswoman Zhang Xiaolian said their sales volume had fallen sharply compared to 2013.

"There are less orders from state-owned companies and government departments, and many people realized fireworks could harm our air quality," said Zhang, 46. "I welcome our new leaders' anti-corruption policies. I wish our country could be more stable and richer in the future."

Fireworks brands available in Beijing this week include "Tokyo Big Explosions" and "I love the Diaoyu Islands," both introduced last year to capitalize on Chinese anger with Japan over a territorial dispute regarding the Japanese-controlled islands that Japan calls the Senkakus.

Families squeezed aboard packed public transport to get home for the all-important reunion dinner. The government estimates a total of 3.62 billion trips will be made during the Spring Festival rush Jan. 16 to Feb. 24.

The next seven days form the core holiday for most people and businesses. Officials are on alert to prevent China's mass annual migration from further spreading the H7N9 bird flu virus.

Besides eating traditional foods, including chickens, the main carriers of H7N9 virus, many Chinese watched the New Year's Eve entertainment gala by state broadcaster CCTV.

Popular film director Feng Xiaogang was brought in to liven up the annual staple, but the long show still featured propaganda-heavy numbers such as uniformed soldiers and ethnic minorities singing the praises of the "Chinese Dream," the pet project of Communist Party boss Xi Jinping.

Many Chinese hopes for the year include that Xi will deliver on promises of significant economic reform.

"My top wish is that the education system could become more equal in the future," said Yu Dejun, 35, shopping for fireworks with his 9-year-old son.

Despite 12 years of working in Beijing for a water treatment firm, Yu is still denied full rights, including education for his family, like other rural migrants who moved to the capital. China maintains a decades-old registration system that favors urban residents.

"My son will have to attend college entrance exams back home," he said. "I really wish he could take the exams in Beijing when he's 18."

Political reforms are not expected. In a sign of Xi's intolerance of dissent, Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and prominent rights activist, was jailed by a Beijing court Sunday for four years and among the his crimes was organizing a protest by migrant worker parents in favor of equal education for their children.

Another fireworks buyer Thursday highlighted widespread concerns about toxic foodstuffs in China, where some producers ignore safety standards to cut costs.

"I wish Chinese milk companies could produce safe and good quality milk for kids, then I don't have to buy expensive, imported foreign brands," said Hu Xiulian, 32, mother of a 1-year-old girl.

Contributing: Sunny Yang



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

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