Millions of people have begun ringing in the New Year – and fresh decade – with fireworks, dancing and champagne, but Australia’s celebrations were overshadowed by deadly wildfires while protests dampened the festive mood in Hong Kong and India.
New Zealanders were among the first to welcome 2020 on Wednesday, with fireworks lighting up the sky over the capital, Auckland.
Large crowds thronged Sydney harbour to watch Australia’s famous New Year’s Eve fireworks, even as smoke from wildfires turned the evening sky in nearby towns blood red.
Many towns along the country’s eastern coast cancelled their fireworks as thousands of people swarmed to beaches to escape the fires.
Hong Kong’s government also cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters staged more rallies against what they see as an erosion of democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Thousands of people in India 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.
Australia in flames
Sydney pressed ahead with its fireworks display despite some calls to cancel the celebrations in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales (NSW), of which Sydney is the capital.
“Tonight we expect a million people around the harbour and a billion people around the world to watch Sydney’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, which is Australia’s biggest public event,” City of Sydney Mayor Clover Moore told reporters.
Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media, while one beachfront photo showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.
The fires have spread across four states, with fronts stretching hundreds of kilometres in some cases. Wildfires have killed at least 11 people since October 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, Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and most of the budget had already been allocated. The event was also a boost to NSW’s economy, she said.
Protests rage on in India and Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, rocked by months of demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020” on Tuesday evening, according to social media posts.
“My New Year wish is this movement can end soon but not because we lost the fight, [but] because we win the fight,” said Kong, a 40-year-old clerk who joined a small lunchtime protest in the central financial district.
Authorities deployed 6,000 police officers as 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 suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China for trial, but demonstrations have since morphed into a broader pro-democracy movement.