Toilets in China go high-tech

A state-of-the- art public toilet in the Fangshan district of Beijing.
A state-of-the- art public toilet in the Fangshan district of Beijing.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The Chinese government unveils new public restrooms that are equipped with TV screens and Wi-Fi

BEIJING • Mr Li Wen had heard about the turbo-strength flush power and the lily-scented soap. He knew about the stalls equipped with individual TV screens and wireless Internet access, the soothing cello soundtrack and the windows lined with aloe vera plants.

But the 39-year-old salesman was sceptical when he set foot in the new public toilet at the corner of Fuqian Square in Fangshan, a district in south-west Beijing. "What was wrong with the old one?" he said. "The government has too much money and doesn't know how to spend it."

Modern technology has changed nearly every facet of life in China in recent years, turning backwoods precincts into bustling cities and bringing cellphones to more than a billion people. But public restrooms in many areas have remained largely unchanged, equipped with the same squat toilets and concrete pits that Chinese people have used for generations.

As the government seeks to improve sanitation and reduce environmental waste across the country, it is planning a major overhaul of public toilets.

Over the next three years, it will build or renovate 57,000 restrooms, including some that will resemble the high-tech facility in Fangshan, the first of its kind in China. The idea has won praise from many residents who have long deplored the squalid, crumbling condition of many restrooms. But it has also brought criticism from those who say high-end toilets are a waste of resources.

"It's just a toilet," said Madam Lei Junying, 74, a retired farmer who lives in Fangshan. "Why do they have to make it such a nice one?" She added: "The government puts out its hands and asks people to pay taxes. Why don't they donate that money to poor neighbourhoods instead?"

The restroom in Fangshan, which includes a separate room with vending machines and an ATM, as well as charging stations for electric cars, has quickly become a popular stop. Every hour, dozens of people visit, sometimes staying to watch a video montage promoting environmental protection. "Even the flush sounds different," said Mr Zhou Wang, 25, a driver from Beijing. "Maybe it will help bring more foreign visitors. They think we're backward because of our toilets."

The restroom is designed to conserve water by recycling waste water from sinks to flush toilets. In addition to squat toilets, it offers several sitting toilets and dividers between the stalls, features that are not standard in Chinese public toilets. But it has maintained some Chinese characteristics, including a communal roll of toilet paper at the entrance and a separate bin for used toilet paper.

China has improved its toilets significantly in recent years, upgrading facilities for 593 million people between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Health Organization. But in poorer areas, it says, the challenges are acute and 14 million people still defecate in the open.

Chinese officials have said they plan to build more toilets like the one in Fangshan in other suburban and rural areas. The aim is to build "beautiful cities and liveable homelands", according to China.com.cn, a state-run news site.

Mr Lu Suisheng, 69, a former teacher from Inner Mongolia, visited the toilet several times during a recent trip to Fangshan to see his son. He said it would help encourage people to take better care of the environment in China.

"Change is certainly needed," he said. "In some toilets, people need to step on bricks to avoid stepping on dirty areas. How can you use toilets like that?"

One of the janitors who maintains the toilet complex, Ms Zhang Min, 35, said the new facility was a great improvement over the old one, which was known for its fetid smells in summer.

"It's much cleaner now," she said. "There's even a shower room and a changing room for us workers."

She said most people had seemed to embrace the new technology, though a few complained that it was no longer possible to flush the toilet by kicking a handle. (Now a button must be pressed.)

Some residents worry that the popularity of the new toilet and the presence of TV screens and Wi-Fi will encourage guests to linger too long. On a recent day, dental assistant Li Peiling, 39, grew restless after waiting five minutes for a stall. She began to shout at the row of closed doors. "Time's up!" she said. "Some of us need to get to work."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Toilets in China go high-tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe