Caught short by a lack of Olympic facilities
As the Olympic torch relay was launched in Beijing last week, a number of landmark infrastructure projects reached completion. These included Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport; the Beijing National Stadium, commonly known as the Bird's Nest; and the National Aquatics Centre, or Water Cube.
But, for citizens and the press alike, there was a more urgent matter to question municipal officials about - the availability of public toilets outside these billion-dollar projects.
The Bird's Nest and Water Cube are already attracting a mounting number of visitors from the capital, other parts of the country and abroad.
This flood of tourists caught the municipal government off guard, as public restrooms surrounding these giant buildings had yet to be installed.
Reporters found that the nearest public toilets were 1km from the Water Cube, while the closest ones to the Bird's Nest were in a small park, 200 metres away.
Worse, there were no signs giving directions to these facilities, with those needing to go left to navigate their way through traffic crossings, office buildings and shops. When asked, security guards told visitors to use toilets in nearby offices, or even relieve themselves next to the unfinished fences.
The state of the city's public toilets is no laughing matter with the coming of the Olympics. But, for policymakers, improving public toilets is a complex issue involving social, cultural, economic and environmental factors, in addition to their accessibility and appearance.
The rise in the number of public toilets implies a huge financial burden for the municipal government. The city has reportedly spent at least 40 million yuan (HK$44.5 million) a year since 2000 to build or upgrade 200 public toilets. For the Olympics, an additional 700 portable toilets will be installed within stadiums and another 800 will be erected in open spaces that will stage cultural events.
The issue of public toilets is also culturally sensitive. Mainland Chinese prefer the traditional squat toilets, which are perceived as more hygienic because there's no skin contact. But western visitors find them difficult to use.
In the end, another 40 million yuan had to be spent to reconcile these competing demands. Both types of toilets have now been installed.
The most daunting problem concerns the toilets' ecological impact. Beijing already has severe water shortages and its underground waste-water pipes only have a limited capacity.
New models of toilet that use recycled flushing water, while minimising waste and odour, are seen as viable solutions.
The new versions will also be roomier - 2 square meters each - and will be able to accommodate some 600 users per day. But, again, these eco- and user-friendly devices cost money.
To improve public access to the toilets, the municipal government also plans to install electronic information booths at tourist sites, where visitors will be able to locate the nearest public toilets using electronic maps. Hopefully, the recent disquiet over the availability of toilets will disappear once these information booths open.
In any event, the 2008 Olympics poses a huge challenge for Beijing. As the host city, its capacity to handle all the administrative tasks is under close scrutiny by local, as well as foreign, visitors.
The issue of public toilets demonstrates how a seemingly trivial matter could seriously affect the image of the city government - and the country as a whole.
Yet, the complexities involved, including the financial, cultural and ecological aspects remain to be appreciated and comprehended.
Kitty Poon, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is author of The Political Future of Hong Kong