A woman walks past a neighborhood toilet. Public restrooms now must meet stricter standards.
(Photo: Wang Zhao, AFP/Getty Images)
BEIJING - Want a job on your resume that'll raise eyebrows? Apply to become a "stink assessor" for China's notoriously noxious public bathrooms.
Applicants for such a position should be younger than 30, have no history of nasal disease and avoid tobacco, pungent food and drink before and during the assessment, the country's ministry of health announced this week.
Local resident Wang Gang, 50 and a heavy smoker, would not be a candidate for such a role but readily offers an opinion about a nearby neighborhood bathroom. He classified the facility as hitting the fourth and worst stench level - "intense foul smell" - on draft standards for restrooms nationwide.
The new rules - issued Thursday for public feedback before they are revised and enforced later this year - also specify the number of flies permitted: three per square meter in a stand-alone bathroom and just one per square meter in a bathroom inside another building. As for maggots - zero tolerance.
China's Communist authorities value statistics, and the classification and precise targets attracted ridicule Friday on the Chinese Web, along with disbelief that the new bathroom standards can be enforced. But there is little doubt they are needed.
Despite clear improvement in Beijing's facilities ahead of the 2008 Olympics, a visit to a public bathroom in the capital and nationwide can still prove an unpleasant experience.
"It's better than before, but the bathroom is very over-used as there are few in this neighborhood, so it's very smelly," said Wang in Lishi Hutong, an alley of one-story structures in Beijing's historic heart, where many families lack their own bathrooms.
The new standards demand better cleaning, panels between urinals and doors on bathroom stalls, unlike Wang's local restroom where two, traditional squat-style holes in the ground have no partition between them, and there are no washbasins. The national three-fly limit per square meter is stricter than Beijing's two-fly-per-bathroom standard introduced last year, although Wang says mosquitoes pose a greater annoyance than flies.
From five flies per bathroom in eastern Nanjing city, to none in sunny Sanya in Hainan, the limits vary but not the requirement of tough enforcement. Unlike previous urban-only measures, the draft standards for public bathrooms will be compulsory and include the countryside. However, they don't specify penalties for excess flies and bad odors. While the stink assessors will inspect in teams of three, it's unclear who counts flies.
In unusual and daring protests last year, Li Tingting led a group of female college students to "occupy" men's public bathrooms in several cities as part of a campaign for more bathroom stalls for women.
The latest standards require a change to a 1:2 ratio of men's stalls, including urinals, to women's.
"I'm satisfied with the new ratio, if they count men's urinal as one lavatory seat," said Li, 23, who now works at a Beijing company, but continues to campaign for women's rights in her spare time.
She said that because most Chinese officials are male, in the past they agreed only to optional rules for increasing the ratio to show "mercy" to women. Implementing these compulsory standards will prove a tough, long-term project, "but my friends and I will keep an eye on it," said Li, who will send opinions and materials to the Ministry of Health.
In Beijing's Xinxian Hutong, retiree Gao Chunzhen, 71, welcomed the promise of extra stalls for women, doors on those stalls and the continued preference for squat-style over sit-down lavatories, although most bathrooms now also offer at least one sit-down option.
"I just wish there were more bathrooms, as we old people have to walk far to find one," Gao said.
And such walks pose another challenge, Gao said. "I hate all the dog poop on the roads nowadays. I don't know why people are allowed to raise dogs in the city, but at the very least they should clean up after them."
Shenzhen, one of China's richest cities, is trying out sand-filled public restrooms for dogs, along sidewalks and near parks.
Amid plenty of online discussion about the bathroom blitz, writer and social critic Li Chengpeng captured the skepticism of many posters. If equal vigor were applied to fighting corruption, stipulating grades for the rotten smell of government departments and allowing no more than one corrupt official per square kilometer, "China would be the most powerful nation," he wrote Thursday on Sina Weibo, China's microblogging site similar to Twitter.
"Of course, 'catching flies as well as fighting tigers' has always been only a legend," said Li, referencing a recent promise by Communist Party boss Xi Jinping to target corrupt officials big and small. "You'd better just count flies."
Contributing: Sunny Yang
Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY