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A Deep Dive Into China's 'Toilet Revolutions'

A $290 billion investment aims to upgrade public restrooms in its Rust Belt region to boost tourism. But locals need it as much as visitors.

A boy uses a toilet inside a department store at a shopping district in Beijing. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

China is cleaning up its image. In what’s been dubbed the “toilet revolution,” the country is investing $290 billion into tourism over the next four years, which includes upgrading 100,000 public toilets, according to Reuters. It’s all part of a grand plan to entice more foreign visitors, who accounted for nearly 11 percent of economic growth in 2015, according to the the National Tourism Administration (NTA), but who made China’s unhygienic restrooms one of their top complaints. The hope is that by 2020, those upgrades could further that growth by 1 percent—a small change until you consider that the total tourism spending for services could reach $1 trillion by then.

Public restrooms have long been a sore point for a country that boasts modern metropolises and picturesque hutongs. And the rapidly urbanizing China has seen many of such “revolutions.” Earlier this year, the NTA released new sanitation standards, which rated facilities on an A to AAA scale and pushed for more Western-style toilets as opposed to squat toilets.

This time, the effort is concentrated in the Rust Belt regions, where the national government is encouraging industrial cities to develop their tourism industry. Predominantly dependent on resources like steel and coal, many of these cities are now experiencing job shrinkage due to slumping demands and depleting resources. As Reuters notes, many depleted coal cities are already trying to turn defunct mines into parks.

China has seen significant progress over the past few decades, but while billed as a measure to appease tourists, this latest announcement highlights how uneven that progress is across the mainland. China straddles between being a superpower and a developing nation (its per capita income is only a fraction of that in advanced countries, as defined by the World Bank). Nearly a quarter of its population lives without access to improved sanitation facilities, mostly in the countryside. Today, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fecal contamination and unsafe drinking accounts for 80 percent of infectious diseases in rural China.

Posters are stuck to the walls of a public toilet in a residential area for migrant workers in a, a Beijing village. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Many depend on public bathrooms, which in their barest forms are little more than pits in the ground that users squat over, sometimes separated by shoddy dividers. There may not be ventilation or running water, so the waste has to be manually pumped out, but not before the stench takes over.

Meanwhile, the ones in the heart of Beijing are pristine, even high-tech. It was only last year that the city introduced a public restroom that itself became a tourist attraction. It had personal TVs, charging stations, wi-fi, and even ATMs—all while a “soothing cello soundtrack” plays in the background. In fact, Beijing is where one of the first “toilet revolutions” began, dating back to the 1960s.

“Chairman Mao never said anything about our toilets, but in the 1950s several leaders had the foresight to realize that we must develop our sanitation,” Lou Xiaoqi told Canada’s National Post in 2002. He’s part of the Foundation of Civilizational Development, which pushed for the necessary upgrades. “The problem must be solved and Beijing must blaze a trail!" Around the time of the interview, Beijing had both a dearth in quality and quantity of toilets, as a China correspondent for The Japan Times noted in 1998:

Beijing's 13 million citizens share a meager 6,870 public toilets, as few as 200 of which are located on the main streets and in commercial areas. Over 70 percent of them are scattered around the residential "hutong" alleys. The busy commercial street Xidan sees an average 100,000 shoppers everyday, all of whom must share a single toilet.

In total, Beijing has had four such revolutions that got rid of pit toilets, added new facilities, and renovated old ones as China prepared its bid for the Olympic games in the 2000s. The city declared a milestone—an “indescribable history,” as the state media agency Xinhua labeled it—in 2000 when its nightsoil collectors cleared their last toilet by hand. (“Not that nightsoil collectors are out of a job,” Reuters reported then. “Much of the sewage from public toilets, residential blocks and tourist hotels, still drops into septic tanks that are cleared by nightsoil trucks.”)

As far as revolutions go, though, China is still a long way off. Success is as much about installing modern toilets as it is about changing locals’ behavior, and globally, the latter has proven to be more difficult. For one thing, squat toilets are still the norm in many parts of the country. Another is that videos of Chinese tourists defecating in the open has garnered is fair share of scorn on the internet. Earlier this year, when the country announced yet another “toilet revolution,” the tourism administration even threw around the idea of a potential blacklist of people “behaving badly in public toilets at scenic spots” as punishment.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the $290 billion program was specifically to upgrade 100,000 toilets. The money is for a larger program that includes upgrading the public toilets.

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