SYDNEY: Australians greeted the new year on Wednesday with a spectacular firework display over Sydney Harbour, despite deadly wildfires which have forced thousands to seek refuge on beaches and compelled many towns to call off their celebrations.
Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as pro-democracy protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls.
New Zealanders were among the first to welcome 2020, with fireworks lighting up the night sky over Auckland.
Two hours later, an estimated one million revellers gathered in Sydney Harbour to enjoy the fireworks after authorities dismissed calls by some members of the public for them to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.
Along Australia’s eastern seaboard, naval vessels and military helicopters were helping firefighters to rescue thousands fleeing the wildfires that have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.
The huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares, with new blazes sparked into life almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions in bushland left tinder-dry after a three-year drought.
Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.
The fires have killed at least 11 people since October – two of them overnight into Tuesday – and left many towns and rural areas without electricity and mobile coverage.
Defending the decision not to cancel Sydney’s fireworks and reallocate funds to fire-affected regions, City of Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also provided a boost to the region’s economy.
Not everybody welcomed that decision.
“Is Sydney seriously still getting fireworks tonight when half our country is on fire,” Twitter user @swiftyshaz13 said.
In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a rally on Tuesday evening called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.
A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.
“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be teargas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us, it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”
Authorities have deployed 6,000 police officers and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.
The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.
Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at the country’s secular constitution.
Protesters planned demonstrations in the capital New Delhi, now in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, in the financial hub of Mumbai and other cities.