BEIJING — The toilet paper thieves of the Temple of Heaven Park were an elusive bunch.
They looked like most park visitors, practising tai chi, dancing in the courtyards and stopping to take in the scent of ancient cypress and juniper trees. But hidden in their oversize shopping bags and backpacks was a secret: Sheet upon sheet of crumpled toilet paper, plucked surreptitiously from public restrooms.
Now the authorities in Beijing are fighting back, going so far as to install high-tech toilet paper dispensers equipped with facial recognition software in several restrooms.
Before entering restrooms in the park, visitors must now stare into a computer mounted on the wall for three seconds before a machine dispenses a sheet of toilet paper, precisely 2 feet in length. If visitors require more, they are out of luck. The machine will not dispense a second roll to the same person for nine minutes.
At the Temple of Heaven Park, one of Beijing’s busiest tourist sites, many people said Monday (March 20) they were pleased by the new machines.
“The people who steal toilet paper are greedy,” said Mr He Zhiqiang, 19, a customer service worker from the north-western region of Ningxia. “Toilet paper is a public resource. We need to prevent waste.”
Mr Qin Gang, 63, taking a stroll through the park with his wife, said China’s history of crippling poverty had left some people eager to exploit public goods.
“It’s a very bad habit,” Mr Qin said. “Maybe we can use technology to change how people think.”
Not everyone was enthusiastic. Some people, frustrated by the new technology, banged their fists against the machines, which park employees said cost about US$720 (S$1,006) each.
Other visitors had more exacting critiques.
“The sheets are too short,” said Mr Wang Jianquan, 63, a retired shopping mall manager.
Chinese officials have worked for years to curb the excessive use of toilet paper in public facilities, in places like Qingdao, a coastal city, and Shanghai. Most public restrooms in China do not provide any toilet paper, while others provide a common roll for visitors to use.
According to a China Radio International report, the Temple of Heaven Park has supplied toilet paper in its public toilets for the last 10 years, but found that supplies were quickly exhausted. A manager of the park said that most of the thieves were local residents, rather than tourists, taking advantage of the free supply for their daily use.
Mr Lei Zhenshan, marketing director for Shoulian Zhineng, the company in Tianjin that designed the device, said in an interview: “We brainstormed many options: Fingerprints, infrared and facial recognition. We went with facial recognition, because it’s the most hygienic way.’’
Mr Lei said an earlier version of the device was installed last year at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing. An official at the Temple of Heaven, who would not give her name, said the facial recognition dispensers there were on trial, and if judged a success, would be placed in all the park’s toilets.
On social media, some users denounced the experiment as a waste of money. Others said a high-tech toilet paper-dispensing device did not befit the majesty of the Temple of Heaven, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an altar where generations of emperors came to perform sacrificial rites.
“Is there not a solution somewhere between ‘put up a sign’ and ‘install the sort of thing Bond villains use to secure their secret vaults’?’’ Mr Jeremiah Jenne, an American historian and writer in Beijing who organises tours of historic sites, asked by email. NEW YORK TIMES