Monday, May 28, 2012


China has announced its most ambitious nation-building project to date, a scheme which, if successful, would dwarf the accomplishments of the Three Gorges Dam and the country’s space program put together.

It plans to restrict every public toilet in Beijing to harbouring no more than two flies each.

It's the latest, and possibly most amusing, of countless bids to arrest a problem which has plagued this nation for decades. The Chinese invented the compass, paper, printing press and gunpowder. They're clearly no slouches in the cleverness stakes. Just look at how many of them wear glasses. So why oh why, we ask ourselves as we run teary-eyed from yet another rancid public convenience, have they not managed to come up with a passable toilet system?

In the 1990s when I first lived here, there simply weren't many public bathrooms to be had. This was around the time I was introduced to a phenomenon social scientists like to call 'people taking a dump outside on the ground in full view of other people'.

The president of the time, Jiang Zemin, was aware of the problem. As Beijing bid to host the 2008 Olympics , Jiang became famous for two reasons. The first was that he made toilets his thing, commanding his minions to come up with better public facilities. The second was that news agency Reuters once put out a story about him for which a sub-editor failed to notice what the spell check had done to the president’s name. Thus news organisations around the world received a story which began with "Chinese president Jingo Semen said today ... "

OK the second thing might be famous among wire service journalists only, but it's true, and funnier than a president who made toilets one of his core issues. Slightly.

A Chinese public toilet, yesterday. Believe me, the lack of
privacy is the least of your concerns.

A commonplace scene in Beijing: Two people find
themselves walking past a public toilet yesterday and
begin vomiting into their hands.

The great man Jiang Zemin. Like myself on
many a Sunday morning in China in the
'90s, he embraced the toilet and made it
his own. His passion for public conveniences
may have earned him some less than
flattering nicknames at APEC meetings,
such as the one where this photo was taken.
But at least all his counterparts were wearing
their pyjamas too.

Now at least Beijing has many public bathrooms, but a visit is not to be entered into lightly, as in, without comprehensive medical insurance. To be kind, they don't work all that well, the pipes seem to be always backing up, or they don't flush properly. There are attendants whose job is to clean them, but, being kind again, perhaps they're just overwhelmed by the size of the task.

The result, to quote the superb Australian sewage treatment feature film Kenny, is that when it comes to roughly 99 per cent of public toilets here, you could say there is “a smell in here that will outlast religion."

More doors would be nice, too, so people could do their serious business in private, but first things first.

The daring “two-fly zone” initiative was announced by the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment in a raft of new regulations snappily dubbed “Beijing city standards for the major profession of public toilet management and service regulations.”

It calls to mind the famously innovative “Four Pests Campaign” conceived by Mao Zedong as part of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Mao, who was good at guerrilla warfare but bad at ecology, ordered China’s greatest resource – it’s vast populace – to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. And they did, by the million. The sparrows had been eating the people’s grain, you see. But now the insects started eating it instead, unfettered by natural predators. And then millions of people starved. And Mao went back to politics.

This time it’s slightly different. The Beijing government said that as a means of gauging improved cleanliness, there should never be more than two flies per toilet. At least then a series of old jokes about a pair of flies holding a discussion in a bathroom will not be affected. And if two Australian men find themselves in there together, they can at least gamble (an old saying suggests we would bet on two flies crawling up a wall).

The city government’s move marks a new crackdown on flies. In 1998 Beijing took a similar step, but said it was OK for up to five flies to congregate in a toilet. Recently, the southern city of Nanchang set a three-fly limit on its public conveniences. Clearly the capital had to go one better. You can't help but feel, however, that government officials have set an impossible task, and left themselves open to more of the ridicule which has followed similarly odd public statements in the past.

A Beijing government official indulging
in a favourite pastime, yesterday.

Previously we had no public toilets in Beijing. Now we
have them and they look like this. Here we see a woman
preparing for the happy task of going in to do her
business on a squat toilet while dressed in a bridal
gown (and non-matching jacket).

A Beijing fly, yesterday, said to be
up in arms over the new edict. 

Here is another Beijing toilet which has backed up with
dire consquences.
No, only joking, it's nothing so gross. This is just the one
were a woman accidentally gave birth and lost her baby
down the pipe in Beijing's Zhaoyang district last
month. Squat toilets are said to be a good thing in the
field of childbirth, for they help women develop
strong pelvic muscles. However, they're not so good
in instances like this. In an incident which made the news
in many countries, emergency workers had to take
the toilet apart and retrieve the newborn, who was stuck
down there for some 15 minutes. Charles Dickens
couldn't have conceived a more pitiful start to a life.

This is performance artist and confirmed
weirdo Zhang Huan, carrying out his
1994 work 12 Square Metres. To
highlight the state of China's public
lavatories, and of course for the sake
of art, Zhang coated himself in fish
juice and honey, then sat naked in
one such God-forsaken place for an
hour, letting flies coat his body.
He died moments later, aged 23.
No, he survived. But noone has had
sex with him since.

A propaganda poster which was part of the "Four Pests"
campaign. It says "Q: What do flies and capitalists have in
common? A: They should all be squashed to death with
a big swatter."

Rats, sparrows and mosquitoes
were also hunted down by some
very angry-looking Chinese. 

Loosely based on the "one country - two systems" approach to China's governance of Hong Kong, the "one toilet - two flies" system has come into effect immediately. Just how it will be enacted, however, was not fully explained. If an attendant finds, say, 21 flies, how will she first choose which 19 to evict, and then how will she do it? How then will she convince them to not come back? And where will all these homeless flies go? At least the toilets keep them off the streets. At least if they're in the toilets they're not at the open-air meat markets.

The new regulations also said a public lavatory may contain only two “discarded items” at a time, and that neither may sit there unflushed for more than half an hour.

One female bathroom attendant went out on a limb by suggesting there may be flaws in the plan.

“That’ll take a lot of work to narrow it down to two flies for many public toilets in the park or at some tourist sites,” Xu Xiutang told the Global Times newspaper. “They are actually putting a number on this? Are they going to come down to the toilets and count?”

Aware that they might be made to look silly, the city government added a concession that the two-fly rule was a guiding principle only. Thankfully this bit was ignored by a gleeful international media assumedly tired the standard announcement fare about things like non-ferrous metal production, strengthened diplomatic ties with the likes of Togo and Tonga, and other countries’ hegemony.

The announcement was classically Chinese in terms of the country’s love of numbers, statistics and the black and white.

Of the hundreds of stories I wrote here in the 1990s, one that sticks out the most concerned an announcement by the Arts Ministry. Worried that the art sector was not pulling its weight amid China’s era of opening up and reform, the Ministry plainly announced one day that the country had set itself a non-negotiable target of producing 10,000 “quality” artworks in the following 12 months. The tone made it clear that anything like 9,639 good pieces and 361 that were only average would simply not be good enough. I wondered what the parameters of “quality” were, and who would judge what passed muster.

Then there was a review of the contentious film Seven Years In Tibet, which inflamed Chinese sensitivities over perceived western busy-bodies sticking their noses in over the mountainous, monk-strewn region. Nothing irks the Chinese more than foreigners calling for Tibet to split from China. In a wonderful bit of language, Chinese government spokesmen used to say such interference “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. Their rancour was shown in one editorial in the English-language China Daily newspaper in the 1990s under the memorably zippy headline “Tibetan splittist chicanery slated”. And then along came Brad Pitt.

The official government-run Xinhua news agency ran a review of the film which simply started with: “Contrary to the opinion of some so-called western ‘experts’, the film Seven Years In Tibet, starring Brad Pitt, is not a good film, Chinese experts confirmed today.”

You’ve got to love such stark assuredness, an attitude that allows for no grey areas. It’s the thing that leads to statements like the one which will always be remembered as The Two-Fly Edict.


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