China is going hi-tech to resolve its chronic problem — few and poorly maintained public toilets. The shortage of clean restrooms is especially hampering China’s tourism industry, which aspires to acquire world class status, and create more jobs. President Xi Jinping’s move echoes India’s focus on ‘Swachh Bharat’, though Beijing undertakes, what is called its “toilet revolution”, from a higher baseline.

China’s ubiquitous smartphone portal WeChat, which performs multiple roles from instant messaging to digital payments, is now pitching in to advance the toilet campaign. Subscribers can use their smartphones, drawing from a cloud computing platform, to find the nearest public toilet within 2 km from their location. The app was launched on November 19 — World Toilet day.

Nearly 3,30,000 toilets can be accessed using the app in 29 provincial regions of China. The vast database used by the app covers a number of public spaces such as parks, universities, shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. Users can also upload toilet locations which have still not featured on the cloud. But China’s toilet revolution has still a long distance to travel. Fresh from a Party Congress, where he pledged to lift all Chinese out of poverty, President Xi has focused on clean toilets as part of this exercise to usher in the country’s “rejuvenation”.

China’s struggle to build clean toilets goes back at least a decade. In 2006, a Taiwanese model, Meng Guangmei, who became a well-known TV presenter, caused national embarrassment if not outrage when she slammed the condition of public toilets, calling them dirty and lacking doors. By the time the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games arrived, there was an announcement that the city planned to build “64 four-star, 197 three-star and 118 one-star toilets at all its major tourist attractions”.

Not more than two flies

The obsession with clean toilets continued. Four years later, Beijing city authorities issued a bizarre guideline that each toilet should not have more than two flies. Seven years after the Olympics, the “toilet revolution” was officially launched, amplified by the display of a model public toilet, which had a television, a vending machine as well as an ATM. A year later, the Beijing municipality announced that the 100 new restrooms with Wi-Fi access would be constructed.

While toilets in China’s tier-one cities have already been improved, there is a real urgency to upgrade facilities in the inner cities and rural tourist spots. For instance, tourists in Tibet being bussed, say, from the Lhasa to Gyantze — an area of gorgeous mountain scenery, mostly located at a physically demanding altitude above 4,000 metres — have to contend with filthy bathrooms during the few refreshment stops en route. The same problem persists in rural Yunnan, an unspoilt zone, which is a haven for off-road travellers.

The Xinhua report acknowledged that in rural areas, “some toilets were little more than makeshift shelters surrounded by bunches of cornstalks, and some were open pits next to pigsties”. But now, the China National Tourism Administration has a concrete plan. By the end of October, 68,000 toilets had been upgraded at tourist destinations. Another 64,000 would be installed or revamped in a two-year span starting 2018. Over the last three years, a total of $272 million has been spent on the “toilet revolution”. Restrooms are being given star ratings based on some 58 variables, including ventilation, background music and provisioning of toilet paper.