Revolutionary Potties: China’s ‘Toilet Revolution,’ Five Years On
After four decades of pouring vast sums into modernizing its previously creaky infrastructure, China has much to be proud of: gleaming new airports, wide roads, and the world’s largest high-speed rail network. Yet for years, one place has stubbornly resisted all efforts at reform — the humble bathroom.
Although it may seem a minor concern, cleaning up the country’s dirty, smelly, and outdated bathrooms has long been an important goal for Chinese officials. At least since the start of the Patriotic Hygiene Movement in the early 1950s, the state has treated hygiene as key to its “civilizing” mission, as well as a means of satisfying public demands for higher living standards.
Toilets were always part of this effort, but the country declared a new stage in its struggle in 2015: a “toilet revolution” that would solve the problem once and for all. In less than three years, China’s toilet revolution saw 68,000 public restrooms built in urban areas and over 10 million toilets upgraded in the countryside, according to official statistics, with another 64,000 public facilities slated to open by the end of 2020.
None of this is cheap: In 2019 alone, the central authorities set aside 7 billion yuan ($1 billion) for toilet projects, a number that doesn’t account for local spending. In urban areas, where the focus is on improving the tourism experience, restroom revolutionaries have spent lavishly on new facilities featuring everything from basic necessities like toilet paper and soap dispensers to self-cleaning toilets, flat-screen televisions, and even refrigerators. Government offices and state-affiliated organizations, including state-owned enterprises, have been encouraged to open their restrooms to the public.
One highlight of the urban toilet revolution is something called the Urban Public Toilet Cloud. Intended to leverage digital technology to increase accessibility, it deploys mobile geographic information system technology so UPTC app users can identify the nearest public toilet and sort nearby restrooms by toilet paper availability, baby changing station openings, and fees so they can be matched with the nearest bathroom that suits their individual needs. On the back end, the cloud system aids local operators by generating real-time reports on air quality, humidity, and odor levels.
Elsewhere, analytics have been used to tailor restroom designs based on expected demand. For example, after statistics showed women’s restrooms should be at least 50% larger than men’s, more female toilets were added into the national program. Catering to the specific needs of tourists, urban restroom designers have added features meant to nudge consumption, such as free Wi-Fi, ATMs, and phone charging stations.
While technology has improved the urban public toilet experience, its deployment has not always served the public interest. Despite central government strictures against vanity spending, officials in some places have deployed eye-catching but not particularly cost-effective technologies in an effort to outshine their peers. Some of the most extravagant examples include the above-mentioned flat-screen televisions and refrigerators, as well as microwave ovens and facial recognition systems meant to prevent toilet paper theft.
This obsession with technological solutions is not unique to China. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also been criticized for overspending on high-tech toilets at universities in developing countries in ways that could indebt local governments. Such boondoggles are always a risk in a planning- and optics-driven campaign.
Leave the cities behind, however, and China’s toilet revolution looks very different. Because fecal waste is valuable to farmers as fertilizer, rural areas have been slow to adopt flush toilets and centralized treatment systems. Requiring an innovative solution, the central government in August 2019 initiated the first national rural toilet design competition, calling for models capable of accommodating water-scarce areas, climate-stressed alpine regions, and farmer preferences for waste reuse. Among the most praised submissions were water-saving, sewage-free, and composting toilets.
But the rural program, too, has been plagued by the flaws of a top-down campaign. Some officials have zealously pushed for the replacement of old facilities with improved designs — even if it means demolishing existing toilets before new ones can be built. Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture felt the need to issue a statement warning local officials against forcing toilet renovations upon villagers.
Paying for these toilets is also a challenge for some farmers. According to interviews with residents, government subsidies for rural areas cover only the toilet itself, leaving out retrofitting costs for drainage systems or even basic amenities like floor tiles. These expenses — as much as $1,400 per household — fall on those who can least afford them, given the average disposable income of rural residents was just $2,288 in 2019. Those who decide to spend the money to finish their bathrooms often end up with a toilet that is absurdly lavish compared with the rest of their house. For those who don’t, the subsidies go to waste, paying for a toilet in what will eventually become a storage or shower space.
For the rural program to be successful, officials need to reform the subsidy system to account not only for toilets but the full list of capital and maintenance expenditures. The exact improvement plans also need to be drawn up in accordance with local income levels, water and climate conditions, and villager preferences.
China’s toilet revolution is unique, not just for the way it marries physical and digital infrastructure, but also because of how the country’s highly centralized political system has been mobilized to make the policy reality. Yet these same conditions have created room for some local officials to prioritize development statistics over the real needs of residents. If the revolution is to achieve its goals, local governments need to reconcile their implementation of technology with their obligations to those under their jurisdiction.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A cleaner sprays disinfectant in a public restroom in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, Dec. 10, 2017. Jia Junsong/People Visual)