On China’s toilet revolution
My taxi screeched to a halt just outside the Old Town of Lijiang丽江, which is nestled in the north-west of Yunnan province in south China. “Really sorry but I’ve got diarrhea. I’ll be back in 10 minutes” … my taxi driver, a plump woman of around 30ish with yellow, crooked teeth and a cigarette flopping over the side of her mouth, awkwardly ran to a nearby public toilet, which I initially mistook for a small hotel.
We’d been having an animated discussion about the tourism industry in Lijiang. Famous for its World Cultural Heritage status allocated by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 1997, the local population has commercialized anything and everything. With a population of just over 1.2 million, it’s real GDP growth is an impressive 9.4%. In 2018, a national warning was issued as 230,000 people visited Lijiang by just the third day of the Lunar New Year. So why wouldn’t the locals profit?
From the station we’d passed numerous bustling hotels and restaurants, the road was newly tarmacked and decorated with brightly coloured flowerpots, and various advertisements in Chinese and English filled up any leftover space beneath the far-away mountains.
I’d asked whether this was a rich area, to which my taxi driver had laughed so loudly it made me jump. “No way, everyone here is poor. People saw the economic opportunity and set up restaurants and hotels in the old town, but the rest of us are poor.” She charged me 80RMB (around £9.15) for a 20-minute taxi-ride … by my estimates that’s far more expensive than Shanghai. As I got out, I said to her cái yuán gǔn gǔn 财源滚滚 “may profits pour in from all sides” and she gave me a cheeky smile. Not so poor after all eh.
In 2015, Xi Jinping unleashed the cè suǒ gé mìng 厕所革命 “Toilet Revolution” – the campaign terminology of which even featured in the State Council Information Office’s 2015 “Dictionary of Xi Jinping’s new terms”. It’s aims – to improve China’s public toilets, and especially at tourist attractions and in rural areas.
Here in Lijiang, the toilets are two-story Naxi minority-themed homes, that blend into the architecture of the Old Town. According to China Daily, through the “One Mobile Phone Tour Yunnan” APP, visitors can find the nearest public toilet with ease, and even see real-time occupancy. When you enter the public toilet, “each cubicle is equipped with a smart sensor deodorizing window to eradicate the toilet smell … the squatting pan is more convenient for tourists to use … and the upstairs and downstairs men and women partition design maximizes the use of space”.
Lijiang isn’t the only municipality beautifying its toilets – some have gone to extreme lengths, decking their public loos in cash machines, Wi-Fi and sofas. Chinese media reported between October 2015 to the end of 2017, the cumulative investment into the renovation and upgrading of the toilets in Lijiang Old Town was about 20 million RMB (£2.28 million).
Visitors have expressed their astonishment with Lijiang’s toilet quality, with one Chinese media reporting visitors saying: 我觉得这个洗手间很干净很高尚，一来看到这个（洗手间）格外意外，一个地方的洗手间是代表一个城市的品味。现在我看到了这个洗手间，就感觉丽江的品味很高，下次还会想来 “I think this bathroom is very clean and noble. When I saw this (toilet), I was surprised by the fact that the toilet design can represent the taste of a city. Now that I have seen this bathroom, I feel that Lijiang has good taste, and I will think about coming back here.”
China’s toilet business is not to be trivialized. Today, 2.3 billion people around the world do not have access to a clean toilet. As such, every 2 minutes a child under the age of 5 dies from diarrhea caused by dirty water and unsanitary toilet conditions. Every year World Toilet Day is held on November 19th, the purpose of which UNICEF states is to spread the word about sanitation. Developed, clean, sensibly-placed toilets indicate so much more than economic prosperity – they demonstrate an appropriate education level and social conscientiousness for a higher quality of life.
For Xi Jinping, the economic and social benefits in China are blatant. Xi’s dedication to the Toilet Revolution may have sprung from his own experiences (pre-President of the People’s Republic of China). According to the popular yet propaganda-fueled “Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as a Sent-Down Youth” which depicts Xi’s “tortuous adolescent years and struggling youth” – inspired from his own experiences of primitive rural toilets when sent down to Zhaojiahe in Shaanxi province, he built the town’s first gender-segregated toilet. During his tours of the countryside, it is rumored the CCP leader often asks villagers about their toilet facilities – namely whether they use flush or pit toilets.
The flocks of tourists to Lijiang both Chinese and non-Chinese seem endless. If the economy continues to prosper at its current rate, I personally can’t wait to see how fancy the public toilets will be here in 10 or so years.
This 66hands story was largely adapted from an article I wrote as a summer intern with Week In China, entitled “In the first flush, China’s toilet revolution remains in full swing”