It’s not just Starbucks ... businesses across China are opening their toilets to the public

Thousands of companies agree to open their washrooms to the public as part of the nation’s ‘toilet revolution’ campaign

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 11:54am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 9:23pm

When Starbucks announced it had changed its policy on the use of its toilets following a massive public relations disaster over the arrest of two black men in one of its outlets in Philadelphia, the news made headlines around the world.

But while the US coffee chain might have felt it had no choice but to change its rules on toilet use, hundreds of companies across China are taking part in a new social initiative that will see them opening their restrooms to the public as part of the “toilet revolution” that has been under way for the past three years.

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The campaign was launched by President Xi Jinping in 2015, and since then more than 70,000 new and refurbished public toilets have opened across the country.

And in recent weeks, authorities in five cities have announced plans to make thousands more available by working with their local business communities.

In Hangzhou, capital of eastern China’s Zhejiang province, the government of Jianggan district has signed deals with 64 shops, hotels and government buildings to open their facilities to the public.

According to Kong Jiahui, who works in the district’s urban management bureau, the agreements were part of a citywide drive to get 490 outlets to join the scheme by the end of the year.

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Kong said that she and her colleagues met managers and owners of the properties to secure their support for the scheme.

Under the deal, the buildings are required to put up a sign advertising the fact their toilets are open to the public, and must ensure they are well maintained and open for at least eight hours a day.

In return, the government agreed to pay each venue 1,000 yuan (US$156) a year to cover the cost of the upkeep.

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Kong said the long-term goal for the city was to ensure residents and visitors were never more than 10 minutes away from a public toilet, although she acknowledged that achieving this would not be easy.

“In our district there are 319 public toilets, but in some residential communities, which are old and densely populated, we can’t meet the demand,” she said.

“Because of limited land resources there is no room for new toilets, but by borrowing them from the 64 outlets, we’ve eased the pressure to some extent.”

Aside from the government in Jianggan, authorities across the country – from Shijiazhuang in the north to Xiamen in the southeast, Linhai in the east to Neijiang in the southwest – have all announced similar schemes to provide more toilets by working with their local business communities.

Dina Lin, a Hangzhou resident in her 30s, said she welcomed the initiative but said she was concerned about how easy it would be for people to know where the toilets were.

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“There should be clear signs on the street saying which buildings are involved, otherwise the project will be meaningless for people just passing by,” she said.

“Because only a small number of premises are involved at the moment, people need to be given clear guidance.”

It would appear to be a valid concern. While many of the companies involved in the scheme have put up signs outside their premises, they are not always clear to see from the street – and some of them are even inside the buildings, rendering them almost useless.

In Neijiang, Sichuan province, a worker at the Baisheng Hotel, which has signed up for the scheme, said she had no idea her employer had opened its toilets to the public and had not seen any signs stating that fact.

Another problem facing foreign visitors to the cities is having to decipher signs written in pidgin English.

A sign outside a government building in Zhengding county, Hebei province, reads, in English: “Inside the toilet opening to the outside world” under two lines of Chinese characters that state quite clearly, “Public toilet inside”.

Another, in Linhai, in Zhejiang, says in English: “Equipped with toilet opening”.

Cheng Chao, an assistant manager at the Zhejiang Zijing Hotel in Hangzhou, said the restrooms in the lobby of her workplace had been open to the public since the hotel opened in 2008.

“Many people living in the neighbourhood come to use the toilets. We just assumed they were always open to the public, although a sign was only put up last year,” she said.

“We don’t see it as a big burden in terms of cleaning.”

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Zhan Dongmei, who works at China Tourism Academy, a Beijing-based research institution, said that while she supported the scheme, it should not be obligatory for businesses to take part.

“The government should not force companies to bear this social responsibility, and should provide compensation and support if they do,” she said.

“But, as well as being a great leap forward in meeting the demand for public toilets, it could be good for local companies by increasing their brand awareness,” she said.

“And if every commercial building signs up for the scheme, the amount of toilet traffic will be equally spread so it won’t put too much pressure on any one place.”