Ex-businessman makes it his mission to improve country’s toilets

By Li Ruohan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/1 5:03:39 Last Updated: 2017/9/2 7:18:57

Qian Jun stands in front of a men's room at the US House of Representatives in March. Photo: courtesy of Yu Ting Public Welfare Foundation

Although he has been jokingly nicknamed by media as "China's Mr Toilet," Qian Jun insists that toilets are no trivial matter and that he will continue to fight for improved toilets for the country over the next 30 years.

Now in his 40s, Qian has completely left behind his logistics, financing and catering business, where he made his fortune.

After a tumor was found in his body in 2011, Qian began to rethink his life goals and decided to spend more time and energy on good causes.

In April 2014, inspired by an Executive Management of Philanthropy course he took in Beijing, Qian decided to establish the Yu Ting Public Welfare Foundation, and positioned it as "China's first non-public foundation focusing on toilet culture."

"During the courses I was told that China has no organizations or institutions studying issues relating to toilets at that time, though the issue is closely related to people's life and there are so many problems in this sector, such as the lack of clean toilets in remote areas," said Qian. 

The foundation is currently running three projects: building environmentally friendly toilets on campuses, building toilets in impoverished regions, and finally his "waste paper for toilet paper" project, which funds toilet paper supplies at schools with the money collected from the school's waste paper.

The foundation was named after Qian's children. "I hope to set an example for them and I also expect them to pass on the spirit of charity," said Qian.

One of Qian's two children, who is studying at high school, applied for a volunteer program in Indonesia, and the other has also taken part in some voluntary works, which Qian said he is very proud of.

Qian's office is vividly decked out with features of his new career, a poster of a cartoon poo on his office door, and a toilet model deodorizer placed on the bookshelf.

A banner that declares "fight for improving toilet environment for mankind" hangs in the office of the foundation.

For the children

Most of Qian's efforts are focused on schools, as he believes the first step to changing the future of China's toilets lies in changing the toilet environment of the young, such as providing toilet paper and designing clean and odor-free toilets.

The program has provided free toilet paper to over 600 primary and middle schools, benefiting more than 1 million children.

However, when Qian first pitched the idea of "waste paper for toilet paper" to schools, one headmaster threw a pile of documents in front of him, saying the school had too many objectives to meet in a year and the "toilet issue" was not really a pressing problem.

Qian's efforts to recruit primary school students as "toilet chiefs" to help maintain school toilets also met with opposition from parents.

"What on earth did my child do wrong that he now has to clean the toilet?" said an angry parent.

Qian was also rejected by many people he approached to be partners, many saying it was "too trivial to spend any energy on," while some just told him not to "talk about toilets at the dining table."

"This is totally meaningless and it's better to spend money to help dying children," said one of Qian's friends, after finding out that he had spent nearly 20 million yuan ($3 million) on the cause.

Meanwhile, Qian's family has not always been supportive, as he now has no income and almost had to sell an office building to fund the foundation's expenditure earlier this year. The sale was cancelled after Qian decided to hold back from expanding the project.

Addressing the issue

"For many years, the toilet issue has been intentionally avoided in China as it was regarded as 'not suitable to talk about or too trivial.' However, there is a severe situation of more than 80 percent of rural areas in western China, especially those in Xinjiang and Tibet, only having the most 'basic toilets' which pose severe health hazards," Qian told the Global Times. 

The "most basic toilets" Qian refers to are the traditional dry toilets, which usually consist of no more than a pit under two wooden planks.

These are susceptible to the breeding of mosquitoes and bugs as they are exposed to the open air for a long time.

In some severe cases, people just grab whatever is at hand to wipe their bottoms, such as straw, leaves, newspapers, or even stones, said Qian.

The traditional method of dumping toilet waste, including directly discharging it into nearby waters, has also led to the spread of parasitic diseases in western China, according to the foundation's website.

"It is not only about quality of life, but also about ensuring a healthy environment and preventing the spread of diseases in those regions," he added.

The foundation's programs have helped design new toilets in remote areas in Tibet, where the environment is different from low-lying areas, so as people's way of living.

For instance, in areas at high altitude and where temperatures are always below freezing, some facilities cannot function normally.

Meanwhile, for Tibetan people who wear capacious robes with long sleeves, Qian's group designed a special area for them to place the robes in the toilets.

"The designs also need to take into consideration needs both from the users and managers," said Qian.

"For instance, the use of seamless floor tiles could prevent water and urine from seeping into the floor, and replacing wooden stall doors with ones made of aluminum or stainless steel can help reduce the odor of urine over time," he elaborated.

Qian's team are applying for as many as 30 patents for new toilet designs to be used in western China, he added.

Qian said he is now negotiating with five cities on commercial programs that are expected to bring some profits to cover the foundation's expenditure in 2017, about 8 million.

Qian's next move is to promote the establishment of a "toilet school" at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.

According to Qian, the school is just the same as university's school of environment or school of law, and it will be expected to award master's and doctorates, but it hasn't been decided yet on exactly what kind of training students will receive.

Qian said that he is now working with environmental institutions and companies on materials to apply for the establishment of the school, adding that Tsinghua has been very supportive about the project. 

Qian's projects were part of a nationwide "toilet revolution" campaign launched in 2015, which aimed to add 33,000 restrooms and renovate 24,000 more between 2015 and 2017 in a bid to promote "civilized tourism" and improve living standards in impoverished areas.

Under the campaign, the Yu Ting Public Welfare Foundation set up a "toilet culture center" together with the Beijing Normal University and World Toilet Organization in 2015.


Newspaper headline: Restroom revolutionary

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