By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL
We visit this place several times a day and, according to statistics, even cumulatively spend up to three years of our lifetime there; yet it is hardly ever talked about – the toilet.
So it is no wonder that it caused a lot of media attention when President Xi Jinping publicly called for a "toilet revolution" in China in April 2015. Back then, he called to intensify efforts to improve sanitary facilities in order to effectively increase the quality of tourism.
Since then, the China’s national tourism bureau has been implementing an ambitious three-year plan for the construction of new toilet facilities and the renovation of existing ones. China's Premier Li Keqiang, in his report of the Chinese government in March 2018, also called for the toilet revolution to be driven forward.
According to the plan, between 2015 and 2017, 57,000 new toilets were to be built or existing ones renovated throughout the country, especially in places with high tourist traffic. The aim was not only to achieve greater access to lavatories that could be used free of charge, but also improvement in cleanliness and a fight against bad odor. The plan also aimed at making the management of the facilities more efficient.
What could be the reason behind a state’s highest officials personally addressing the issue of toilet improvement?
The WC Cultural Shock
I myself travelled to China for the first time in the summer of 2006, and I was forewarned: the condition and facilities of many Chinese public washrooms was hygienically poor and required some getting used to for western travellers, my travel guide book stressed.
In order to avoid a WC culture shock, it is advisable to head for the restrooms of larger hotels and restaurants wherever possible, said the well-meant advice in the travel book. In general, one would be well advised to always carry a pack of paper tissues, as even toilet paper was not considered as an essential element of a toilet in China.
Lacking the fortitude to risk throwing caution to the wind in the face of such dire warning, I preemptively packed several packages of paper tissues in my travel bag along with a rather large sized bottle of disinfectant , just in case.
And indeed, some unpleasant memories of public toilet experiences during earlier trips to China have been seared into my memory to this day. I also kindly reminded family members and friends who visited me later during my study years in China never to leave the house without some back-up of paper tissues. That was a few years ago. However, a lot has changed since back then.
Small Location with Great Significance
Is it even necessary to make so much fuss about a simple toilet and its upgrading? Yes, it is!
According to the UN, for example, unsanitary conditions and the resulting diseases are one of the main causes of infant mortality. According to UN information, around one billion people, a good 15 percent of the world's population have no access whatsoever to a toilet, 4.5 billion people (around 60 percent of the world's population) have no own toilet at home or at least no safe access to a lavatory.
Against the background of such figures, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously proclaimed November 19th the World Toilet Day in July 2013. Since then, this day has been dedicated to the fight for cleaner sanitary facilities around the globe and is intended to motivate politicians and industries worldwide to tackle existing problems in this regard.
The Chinese government has also recognized that toilets, though often neglected, are of great importance. Thus, China has been holding a "National Toilet Summit" since 2015, at which experts and officials from all over the country exchange their experiences and define the main areas of work for the coming year.
This year's "Toilet Summit" took place from February 23rd to 24th in Zhengding County, Shijiazhuang City, capital of Hebei Province bordering Beijing. The choice of the venue was not without reason: the county, popular with tourists and home to numerous historical cultural sites, is regarded as a countrywide pioneer in the Chinese "toilet revolution."
A visit to the county, which is about 270 kilometers from Beijing, is necessary for firsthand experience of the situation.
My Toilet Is My Castle
The historic city wall is one of the most popular tourist spots in the heart of Zhengding County, which has around 470,000 inhabitants, and the starting point for many touristic tours. From here you have a wonderful view over the old pagodas and picturesque temples of the city.
At the foot of the city wall, an elongated building stands out whose architectural style is inspired by the appearance of an ancient fortress. What appears to be a sight from another era is actually a public toilet.
In the entrance hall which connects the ladies' and men's toilets in both wings of the building, a padded seating area invites visitors to relax. In the middle of the room stands an opulent indoor plant. Next to the upholstered benches, there is a shoe polisher, a scale, and a beverage vending machine; next to them, visitors find a small USB charging terminal for smartphones.
A sign at the main door indicates that the entire building is equipped with free WIFI. There is also a boiler for hot water, allowing guests to freshly brew their tea in their own thermos jugs. You might think that you have entered a lounge; in fact we are standing in the anteroom of a public toilet.
"At first glance, toilets may appear to be an unimportant detail, but they are ultimately an indicator of a city's degree of civilization. Today, the toilets here in Zhengding are so clean that you can cook your instant noodles without hesitation," says Liu Ruichen, representative of the local city management department, confidently.
According to Liu, there are two main reasons why Zhengding pays particular attention to the toilet revolution: "On the one hand, it was our aim to improve the general behavior of people in public spaces and to sensitize them to this; on the other hand, we wanted to enhance the quality of our touristic facilities. Our toilets now are a mirror of the success of our development in tourism development".
Gao Min, head of the publicity department of the Zhengding's party committee, also emphasizes that improving the toilets has a deeper meaning: "With the toilet revolution we are ultimately revolutionizing people's lifestyles and improving their quality of life. The reconstruction and renovation of public lavatories is not a marginal task, but is rather of comprehensive significance as it has a direct impact on people's way of living. In the end, it also gives decisive impetus to other areas."
Aiming for a “Human Touch”
Since the beginning of the nationwide restroom revolution, 625 new washrooms have been built or old ones completely renovated in Zhengding County alone. Not only can visitors use the public toilets free of charge, passers-by are also allowed to freely use the restrooms of all government institutions in the county. Even at weekends and on public holidays, when up to 100,000 tourists crowd Zhengding, there are no queues at the lavatories visible.
But the county does not only stand out due to its high WC coverage rate. "It was important for us to adapt toilets as service facilities to better cater to people's needs, to give them a stronger human touch," explains Zhu Zhihui, deputy head of the County's Bureau of Culture and Tourism.
A key to this is also a more efficient management of the facilities, including fixed responsibilities. Cleaning staff have undergone systematic training to provide improved service to visitors. There are regular cleaning schedules that ensure that neither paper nor soap run out even at peak times.
In addition, Zhengding also makes use of the new possibilities afforded by the Internet age. All public washrooms can be found via the navigation app Baidu Maps, China's equivalent to Google Maps, and are therefore easily found via GPS.
A particular key element designed to make Zhengding's toilets more user-friendly is the standard installation of unisex toilets or "escort toilets", as they are also called here. While elsewhere there are at most toilets for the disabled, Zhengding has set up a special room in all public washrooms which is open to all those who cannot relieve themselves without assistance and have to be accompanied by others.
"These washrooms are intended, for example, for adults with small children or senior citizens who have family members to help them go to the toilet," explains Zhu Zhihui. As a father, for example, you are no longer faced with the embarrassing decision of either taking your minor daughter to the men's toilet or having to enter the women's toilet yourself.
Part of an Overall Strategy
Visitors, in any case, seem to appreciate the improvements in the toilets, as travel guide Zhang Yongbo, who has followed the upgrading of the facilities over the years, confirms. "We also have many foreign visitors here, especially from South Korea and Japan. Overall, we get a lot of positive feedback on the condition of the sanitary facilities," he says.
That the county succeeded in bringing its sanitary facilities up to such a good standard within just a few years is certainly also due to the fact that the campaign was integrated into a clever overall concept.
If something needs to improve, the necessary structures must first be created. Those responsible for the county have decided to simultaneously tackle challenges in different areas of public spaces. For example, the city now provides free parking throughout Zhengding in order to ease the parking pressure at the roadside and bring more order into the streetscape.
The county also increased the number of staff of the local sanitation department and introduced fines for offences involving improper garbage disposal. During our visit, the streets and parks looked as if they were polished, and street cleaning vehicles seemed always at work.
A local official told China Today, "It is important to make a start and to take energetic action at the beginning. Improving behavior in public spaces is a learning process. Ultimately, for example, the cleaner the streets are, the rarer the cases of carelessly throwing away cigarette butts or other waste."
In any case, the toilet revolution is already bearing fruit nationwide. At the end of October 2017, the government drew up its first three-year summary. Between 2015 and 2017, over 70,000 new toilets had been built or old ones comprehensively renovated throughout the whole country, 22.8 percent more than originally planned.
Now strong efforts are being made to gradually extend the campaign from important tourist resorts to the rest of the country and to carry it from the cities to the countryside. The national tourism bureau has announced that it will upgrade at least 64,000 more toilets by 2020.
As it appears, in the future, toilet warnings in Western travel guide books could belong to the past very soon. In any case, my own personal warnings to visiting friends and relatives are already a thing of the past. A lot has actually happened in recent years with regard to the improvement of toilets in China. Perhaps there will soon be a travel guide to the most interesting and curious toilets in China, one can be curious.