Every week, it seems like photos of someone, often little kids, crapping in public appear online in China. This usually creates all kinds of havoc, often with people criticizing the parents (or grandparents) for letting the kids do their business in a public place. But why does it keep happening?
Note: this story contains a subject matter some readers might find uncomfortable.
The vast majority of public crapping in China appears to be limited to kids, but a small number of adults also do it—though they tend to be far more discrete.
In the countryside, outhouses still exist, and the cities have made leaps and bounds in public restrooms (especially in the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics). However, many toilets in the cities can get dodgy. Below is a public toilet in Beijing with warning signs:
Historically, there has been a dearth of toilets in China. What's more, diapers have traditionally been expensive, and crotchless pants were seen as an acceptable solution.
Against this backdrop, if parents can't find a toilet in, say, Guangzhou's subway stations, they might see the subway platform, or the subway itself, as a viable alternative. But on an airplane? Which has clearly marked toilets?
Diapers are still expensive in China, so middle-class parents can purchase them for their children, but you still see crotchless pants in all manner places—from shopping malls to the Forbidden Palace. What's more, if grandparents are watching after the kid, they might be more inclined, because of the circumstances they grew up in, to let the kids go in public. Some kids, as they become teens, don't ween themselves off this way of thinking and do their business when they're out in public. It does reflect on their parents—something that people online in China are quick to point out when criticizing this behavior.
A few years ago, I interviewed a famous industrial designer for a magazine. He's Japanese—not Chinese—and we did not once talk about defecating in public. However, we did talk about this theory that humans have a natural relationship with things. For example, if you have trash in your hand, and you see a bicycle with a basket, you might pitch it in the bicycle's basket. This is littering and isn't socially acceptable, but that bicycle basket does resemble a waste paper basket, and instinctively you might use it for that. Going to the bathroom in public place, perhaps, works on a similar rationale—especially since a Guangzhou subway bin does resemble a toilet. Somewhat.
But China is changing. For people in the country's urban middle and upper classes, going to the bathroom in public is increasingly not socially acceptable as it is in more rural areas. When photos, like this recent one of a teen pooping in a trash can, hit the internet, people get upset. Eventually, these social views will continue to filter through society. Norms will continue to change, just as the country continues to change, and these public toilet displays will gradually fade away.