Now, it's possible that there is a great amount of support for this toilet-updating venture coming from the Chinese hoi polloi. If that's the case, then I'm all for it. If anybody has the right to demand a change in the way people are being treated at some of their most vulnerable moments, it's the people themselves. Somehow, though, I fear that the main reason behind the change are the big tourist dollars. This paragraph in the article certainly seems to point that way:
"Following complaints from visitors, Beijing last week announced the start of a revolution (or "revo-loo-tion") that should see the number of toilets at tourist sights rise, along with their quality." [All emphasis mine.]
Or this one from another article:
"Li admitted that the current state of public toilets in the country leaves much to be desired and should be improved to meet with international tourism standards." [Once again, emphasis mine.]
I am reminded in all of this of a singularly strange meeting I attended when I lived in Jiujiang, Jiangxi, in 2006 - 2007. Jiujiang is not a big draw for tourists (although it's a good starting point for visiting Lushan), particularly for Western tourists. That's part of what I love about the city. And yet one night my wife and I, along with three or four others from the city's very small expat population, were invited as guests of honor to a panel discussion with local government officials about how to make the city more appealing to Western tourists. We cringed as some of our fellow laowai complained about the lack of English menus at restaurants or how loud some of the streets were (not at night...on Saturday afternoons...). We were put on the spot to say something to these officials, so we stumbled through some silly thoughts about public benches in pretty areas or something, and left it at that. Everybody went home, the government officials (rightfully) ignored all of the ideas that were suggested that night, and Jiujiang stayed just the way it was.
The point is, a city shouldn't have to change who it is just to attract tourist money, and neither should a country. I understand the economic realities of the situation, of course. Sometimes your local economy relies on tourists, and if you can get a few extra RMB by updating the toilets, then I certainly can't blame you for making the change. But I think it's kind of sad. We tell kids all the time to be true to themselves and not worry about what others think of you, but even nations can fall victim to that sort of peer pressure.
Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying I think China should stay in some sort of dark age of toilets just so that travelers can have what they consider an "authentic" experience. That sort of thinking seems to me equally as patronizing as it is to insist China change to meet your standards. All I'm saying is that the desire to change should come from within. Perhaps that's happening here, in which case everybody wins (hooray!). But if not, then it seems like China is losing a little bit of itself.