YUAN CHONGDE IS standing next to a waist-high cardboard container full of small, rectangular boxes whose sides are inscribed: 'Disposable sanitary sheath for toilet seat' in curly, purple letters. A series of diagrams shows an open toilet seat and a four-step method for drawing one of Yuan's papery cotton sheaths over it. The World Toilet Summit 2004 is in full swing and Yuan has travelled from Shanghai to demonstrate his new product. 'This,' says the grey-suited, sunglasses-wearing, forty-something, solemnly, snapping open a clear plastic package and unfolding a toilet-seat shaped sheet with elasticated edges, 'this is what I call the 'dangerous triangle''. Pointing to the front, narrower end of a sample toilet seat being held aloft by a bemused, co-opted conference-goer, Yuan says: 'This is where you can catch diseases.' Then he pulls one of his sheaths over the seat and brandishes it with pride. 'When I'm at home, if my wife has her period, I can clean the toilet,' Yuan says. 'If my haemorrhoids bleed, I can clean the toilet. But I wouldn't want to touch that stuff outside the home. I would want to use this.' Organised by the Singapore-based World Toilet Organisation (the other WTO), experts from around the world gathered in Beijing for three days on Wednesday for the world's annual toilet summit that this week drew 190 members from 25 countries - and more than 450 other participants, many Chinese officials from the co-organisers, the Beijing Municipal Tourism Bureau and the city's Administration Commission. For the WTO, it's all about converting the world to clean toilets, and they hope World Toilet Day, today, will help to spread the word. For the Beijing co-organisers, it's all about cleaning up the city's notoriously stinky loos before the 2008 Olympics. Toilets on the mainland are often little more than a slash in the ground and are the butt of many tourist jokes. Along with spitting in public, filthy loos are a major factor in the mainland's poor hygiene image around the world. Government figures say there were 107,949 public toilets in 660 mainland cities at the end of last year, of which 58,996 were flush toilets. On average, there are just over three public toilets for 10,000 citizens. Officials regularly receive complaints about this situation 'from many foreign mugwumps [sic] and minister-level state guests', including one from the foreign minister of Thailand who, after visiting the Ming Tombs outside Beijing with his wife in the 1990s, wrote 'a complaining letter that focused only on the issue of public toilets', the deputy head of China's National Tourism Bureau, Gu Chaoxi, said, ruefully, in a keynote speech. Apparently galvanised by the negative publicity, the mainland has launched a 'public toilet revolution'. Officials say the movement began with the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, the first international event held after the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when China was still largely an international pariah. Fronted by the slogan: 'Being convenient to the people, demanding sanitation, improving conditions and progressing gradually,' China's public toilets were divided into Class I, II and III, with more than 240 Class II and higher public toilets being built in or around Tiananmen Square, the Wangfujing shopping area and other places with heavy tourist traffic, according to Liang Guangsheng, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Administration Committee. Construction of luxury toilets has been stepped up and a few Beijing loos now have nappy-changing facilities and wheelchair access. Many toilets have become cleaner and are well-maintained. More improvements are in the pipeline. So far, 2,000 toilets have been renovated. Also, the city plans to build 400 high-class public toilets a year until 2008 for the Olympic crush. Jack Sim, Singaporean ex-businessman and founder of the WTO, is impressed by China's achievements. 'What Beijing has done is an example to cities all over the world who could draw lessons from Beijing,' he says. Sim is a dapper Singaporean who switched from the world of business to the business of the world because, he says: 'It's fun. Clean, acceptable toilets are a hallmark of human civilisation. It proves that people have achieved gracious living.' When asked why he gave up making money for the voluntary world of the WTO, he says: 'Somebody has to do the dirty work.' Fellow-Singaporean Simon Tay, chairman of the city state's National Environment Agency, says toilets are good for tourism. But whether they stay clean depends on the users, he says. 'There are a lot of things you can do to provide the infrastructure, but in the end, a lot depends on human habits,' Tay says. 'And these,' he adds, 'are surprisingly hard to change.' Urbanisation is a messy process, he says. 'When you move people from a village to a five-star hotel, it doesn't mean their minds change too,' Tay says. 'I think China has built some incredibly good infrastructure, at least in the big cities that I've seen. There are places that are up there with anything international.' But there are constant challenges in the mindset of the people who, all too often, still fail to take responsibility for not fouling a public toilet, Tay says. 'It could take a generation,' he says. 'But we still have problems in Singapore, and we've been working at it there for many years.' Tay hopes that last year's Sars crisis will help to raise awareness of the crucial importance of public hygiene and health. 'Sometimes a crisis like Sars pushes things forward,' he says. 'I would hope that tolerance for low public hygiene will have diminished with Sars.' Other keynote speakers, include the father of India's public toilets, Bindeshwar Pathak ('I regard the toilet as mankind's top achievement'), whose Sulabh low-cost toilet programme is credited with releasing millions of 'untouchables', the lowest Indian caste, from the work of cleaning out open-pit latrines, a key reason for their low status. From the Netherlands, anthropologist Johan Molenbroek presented his Friendly Restroom concept, which helps elderly people use the toilet, a prime place for the infirm to fall. One of his students recently invented the Ladypee, a time-saving device similar to the urinal that can be used in a similar fashion by skirt-wearing women. And delegate Vladimir Moksunov, president of the Russian Toilet Association (RTA), plans to tour the world in a mobile toilet (mobitoi), dubbed by the association as 'the toilets of the future'.