In China, a public toilet revolution


BEIJING -- Over the past 150 years, revolutions in China have overthrown the emperor, simplified the written language and industrialized the country.

Now, another program of modernization is sweeping the land: the public toilet revolution.

The government has declared that the existing system of toilets is an embarrassing sign of backwardness and a hindrance to further economic development, and announced a major effort to change one of the most malodorous aspects of Chinese life.

"The public toilet revolution is a sign that people's level of civilization is rising," says Lou Xiaoqi, director of the Foundation of Civilizational Development, which is leading the effort in Beijing.

"People have a higher standard of living and are more aware that the old toilets are not ideal."

Not even the government has a polite name for them. Most are concrete or cinder block shacks, divided in half for male and female. Running water is rarely found. Ventilation, almost never. The only furnishings are holes cut in the floor, emptying into vats cleaned out every so often, the contents used as fertilizer.

Under the foundation's leadership, 38 "model public toilets" are under construction; they are to have running water, a sewage hookup and at least one Western-style toilet.

Other parts of the country are joining the modernization program. Shanghai has declared that upgrading toilets is "the No. 1 project under heaven." One district there spent $500,000 last year to improve 46 public toilets, including several that from the outside now look like cafes.

The toilet revolution, however, faces an acute lack of financial support, with one sassy magazine noting that, in Beijing at least, the public sanitation budget is so low that at current levels it would take 125 years to upgrade the capital's 7,000 public toilets.

That's an exaggeration, argues Mr. Lou.

It will take, he says, only 40 years.

More of a problem are people's attitudes. Public toilets are not regarded merely as conveniences for tourists and shoppers; in China, the neighborhood public toilet is often the only such facility available. This means that the condition of toilets reflects people's habits rather than government neglect.

"People are already used to the old habits, so we have to re-educate them so they understand that clean toilets are better," says Mr. Lou.

When the Foundation of Civilizational Development was established in 1993, few city officials supported the project; like many citizens, they saw little need for improvements.

"Toilets are traditionally seen as dirty places," Mr. Lou explains. "No one expects them to be clean, so people didn't see the point in paying for a clean one."

Slowly, though, attitudes are changing. Prosperity and contact with the outside world have increased pressure for toilets that are not dark, squalid affairs.

Foreign tourists have helped accelerate the change. One widely published survey last year reported that nearly half the foreign tourists visiting Beijing skipped breakfast in the hope that that they could avoid using a lavatory until they returned to their hotel in the evening.

As in all things studied by the country's legions of bureaucrats, there is a surplus of statistics detailing the crisis.

A government report says the capital's 12 million citizens make use of an estimated 57,000 toilets, or 210 people per toilet. But 50,200 of these are "internal public toilets" run by "work units" -- the factories, offices and stores where Beijingers work.

And of the remaining 6,800 toilets, 70 percent are all but hidden in the city's famous "hutongs," the maze of small alleys that make up central Beijing. And most serve as the only toilet for local residents, who usually do not have a toilet in their homes.

That leaves about 2,000 to serve Beijing's public streets; only 200 of them are located on main thoroughfares. The estimated 50,000 noontime shoppers on Beijing's busy Xidan Street, for example, must make do with one public toilet.

Compounding the problem is the lack of money spent on their upkeep. Mr. Lou estimates that the city spends the equivalent of $37.50 per toilet each year, including maintenance, waste removal and renovations.

Mr. Lou's foundation hopes to supplement this low level of spending with private donations.

The 38 toilets under construction are financed by $1.6 million in corporate contributions, including fixtures donated by a Japanese manufacturer. No U.S. company has contributed.

Designs for the toilets were submitted for a competition this year that attracted 340 entries, including one from Tim Geisler, a U.S. architect based in Beijing.

"I was walking near the Forbidden City, and I saw a building with a skylight. I wondered what it was because it seemed different from the other buildings, and then I saw it was a public toilet," says Mr. Geisler, whose design for a toilet in Beijing's mammoth Tiananmen Square was not among those chosen to be built.

Before submitting his proposal, Mr. Geisler studied the architectural layout of many Beijing public toilets, as well as their history. He concludes that few public toilets existed in Beijing before the Communist takeover in 1949. Previously, toilets were located in the city's traditional courtyard houses and used by the clans that lived there.

By the 1950s, all property had been nationalized and space in the courtyard houses was allocated by the government. With family planning discouraged and peasants moving to the cities after famines hit in the late 1950s, the houses became overcrowded and public toilets were built.

"They're symbols of communal living, something the Communist government would want to provide," says Mr. Geisler.

Now, public toilets have become part of urban social life, especially in the city's cramped alleys. They are places where gossip is exchanged, with little self-consciousness about bodily functions.

Although the new toilets may change some of these habits, the revolution seems to be welcomed.

Li Xuehong was at a new toilet in a park, north of one of the capital's beltways. She gladly uses the clean, bright facilities when she takes her morning walk with her baby grandson.

"You can really get used to these new toilets very quickly," Mrs. Li says. "It's good that my grandson grows up with this high level of sanitation."

Mr. Lou of the development foundation hopes to improve other aspects of Beijingers' lives as well.

Next year, for example, he plans to hold a public sculpture competition, as part of an effort to beautify Beijing.

"The Beijing that people see isn't up to the city's long history and culture," he says.

"We want to start with the biggest problem -- and that's the toilet."

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