China’s “Toilet Revolution” Shows Us That Politics Still Matters in the Xi Era

The “chairman of everything,” “China’s strongest leader since Mao,” and the “new Emperor” is spending a lot of time on, well, toilets. And China’s propaganda system, far from shying away from the image of a powerful leader focusing on the seemingly mundane, has worked overtime to promote this connection. Since President Xi Jinping proclaimed a “Toilet Revolution” (cesuo geming) in April 2015, China’s state news agency Xinhua boasted that the campaign has garnered extensive foreign coverage and approval, with 93% of a staggering 16,000 published articles deemed “positive.”

Yet much of the commentary and media coverage have struck a bemused tone and offered little analysis. Actually, the Toilet Revolution should not be trivialized. It is a serious policy platform that enjoys strong backing from the central government. More than just a singular issue of improving public bathrooms, it is a prism through which to examine how the central government takes account of popular opinion, how bureaucratic interests are championed by China’s top leaders, and how agencies can effectively implement national policy campaigns.

It’s also an interesting window on Xi’s leadership. His personal championing of the Toilet Revolution, which began as a campaign by the National Tourism Administration (NTA) but has since expanded its scope to become part of Xi’s broader rural development strategy, means that the initiative will likely continue to grow. The evolution of this policy also suggests that the government apparatus has not frozen entirely or ceased innovating under Xi, who has rewarded bottom-up initiative that aligns with his broader political goals.

China’s Lacking Lavatories

As any passing tourist or long-time resident of China will agree, the country’s public sanitation, including toilets, needs vast upgrades, particularly in rural areas where some of the village toilets are nothing more than “two bricks, one hole, breeding insects, and a fiery stink,” according to state media.

That the toilet campaign is popular is beyond dispute. China’s public bathrooms exhibit a litany of inadequacies, including that the majority do not provide free toilet paper (authorities say the rolls are easily stolen). It’s little wonder then, according to a joint survey from Faenza Bathrooms and Sina Home that polled almost 10,000 Chinese, that the average satisfaction rating of public bathrooms is a paltry 2.2 out of five. Of course, improving sanitation also has knock-on effects on public health, as the UN estimates that for every $1 spent on sanitation facilities, spending on mitigating fecal-borne diseases like cholera can be reduced by $9.

The Toilet Revolution also falls squarely under the new “principal contradiction” Xi introduced at the 19th Party Congress, where he said the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should resolve the contradiction between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”

It is an easy win politically to improve sanitation because tackling such an obvious and pervasive problem as toilets is aimed directly at improving Chinese citizens’ quality of life. Unsurprisingly, state media took toilets a step further and framed the revolution as part of the CCP’s twin centenary goals of “building a moderately prosperous society” and “realizing the great rejuvenation of the nation.”

These pronouncements may sound hyperbolic to outside ears, but as a policy matter, for a country that still has around 30 million living in extreme poverty, it’s probably better to hold the snark and take the campaign seriously. From the Chinese government’s perspective, having a clean and sound public toilet system is an explicit marker that divides a developing country from an advanced economy, and is something that leaves an immediate impression on any visitor. One case in point is Japan’s toilet technological wizardry, which reinforces perceptions of its advanced status at home and abroad.

How Xi came to Champion a Bureaucratic Interest

But before Xi put his personal imprimatur on the Toilet Revolution in April 2015, the head of the NTA, Li Jinzao, was already pushing for this idea. In fact, the NTA officially launched the Toilet Revolution in late February 2015. By March, Li had followed with an essay, “Tourism Must Develop, Toilets Must Be Revolutionized,” that ferociously attacked local authorities’ excessive focus on GDP growth over public services and identified “dirty, chaotic, inferior, lacking, and distant” toilets as “the weakest link” in China’s tourism services.

This didn’t come out of the blue for Li, who apparently had been nursing this idea for the better part of two decades. From 1998-2002, he served as mayor of picturesque Guilin, a karst-mountain ringed tourist hotspot in southwestern Guangxi province, where he personally launched a local “toilet revolution”to help increase international tourism after hearing many foreigners complain about the despicable local lavatories.

Nor was Li alone in his thinking. The economist Zhu Jiaming called for a “toilet revolution” in 1988, and various mini “toilet revolutions” happened across China  in the 1990s. But under Li’s guidance, the Guilin city government oversaw the construction of 849 new “tourism toilets” in 2000. The campaign even drew the attention of central government bureaucrats in Beijing, so the NTA convened a seminar in Guilin the following year to promote the “Guilin Model” in other tourism destinations across the country.

By 2003, central government agencies had passed the first quality standards for China’s tourism toilets. But according to media reports, while localities built more toilets, their quality wasn’t exactly up to par. So when Li took over as head of the NTA in 2014, he decided to double down on and then scale up the Guilin Model nationally.

Li tried to mobilize his agency around the policy, even designating April 1 as China Toilet Revolution Advancement Day and instituting an annual National Toilet Revolution Meeting on the first workday after the Spring Festival holiday. From a bureaucratic interest standpoint, this made sense, since travel and tourism combined contributed 11% to China’s GDP and 10.3% to national employment in 2017. Li viewed China’s shoddy toilet system as a major hindrance to sustaining the growth of the industry that his agency regulated.

Beyond narrow bureaucratic interest, however, addressing the national public toilets system would allow the NTA to notch easy wins on several other fronts. For one, it would shape a better image of China in the eyes of foreigners; second, it would catalyze investment in rural areas as part of China’s broader policy agenda to improve living standards in the Chinese countryside; third, it would support the goals of the leader of the bureaucracy (and perhaps even garner Li some attention at the top) by aligning with Xi’s wish to accelerate the building of China’s “ecological civilization” to address the environmental cost of China’s growth.

Li clearly understood the context in which his agency’s interest could obtain top-level support, at a time when “quality of services” was rising above “quantity of growth” as a mandate in Xi’s “new era” of Chinese governance. And sure enough, Li’s advocacy caught the attention of none other than Xi himself, who, on April 1, 2015 personally made “written comments” (pishi) on an NTA report, instructing the agency to “seize” the Toilet Revolution to combat “perennial maladies and ugly habits” and “upgrade tourism quality.”

Such an explicit endorsement from Xi himself all but ensured that the Toilet Revolution would go “viral.” Just five days later, the NTA released its “Three-Year Action Plan” that set a target to build or renovate 57,000 toilets in officially-designated tourism zones before 2018. The plan also called for improving the quality, cleanliness, accessibility, and female-male ratio of toilets.

The success at elevating the Toilet Revolution has some implications for the way we think about agenda setting in Chinese politics.

To me, it seems to be an excellent example of how an enterprising government agency, with a new leader hoping to champion a proven pet project, can skillfully launch a campaign calibrated to boost the agenda and attract the attention of the top leader. Indeed, Li’s essay of March 2015 framed the Toilet Revolution as a response to Xi’s assertion that tourism is “an important indicator of the improved living standards of the people.”

Why did Xi ultimately choose to personally endorse and elevate this particular policy? Some evidence suggests that Xi’s sanitation fixation might stem from personal experiences of rural privation, when he was a sent-down youth in the village of Zhaojiahe, Shaanxi province in the late 1970s. According to the government-issued propaganda tome Xi Jinping’s Seven Years as a Sent-Down Youth, local official Xi built the first gender-segregated toilet in town. And when he served as a young cadre in Zhengding, Hebei province in the early 1980s, Xi led efforts to significantly improve the filthy local bathrooms. Since Xi became China’s paramount leader, during his frequent inspection tours of the countryside, he apparently has a habit of asking villagers about their bathrooms and whether they use flush or pit toilets. And of course, his agenda has shifted toward non-material, social gains and ecological concerns as well.

Having Xi’s seal-of-approval likely made Li’s job much easier, because top-level support generates bottom-up enthusiasm for compliance from ambitious younger cadres vying for attention and hoping to distinguish themselves for promotion. It also surely helped the NTA and its leadership to increase their visibility, funding, and power within the Chinese system.

And here is what has resulted: The NTA was able to get the central ministries involved in land-use rights to streamline the cumbersome application process normally required to build multiple new toilets. Outside of Beijing, as of May 2017, the top leaders of 27 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities had issued instructions and requirements for the local implementation of the Toilet Revolution.  Many localities have even set up “leading small groups”  to coordinate implementation and incorporate toilet indicators into their overall performance evaluations of county-level cadres. Hubei province has so embraced the Toilet Revolution that it made Wang Li, a grassroots toilet manager feted for fishing phones out of urinals, a representative of the Hubei Provincial Party in 2017 and a delegate to the National People’s Congress—China’s legislature—in 2018.

The NTA itself has also adroitly deployed the administrative tools at its disposal to ensure the success of the Toilet Revolution, and thereby keep itself in Xi’s good graces. To help elicit local compliance, the NTA held local tourism officials accountable by adopting a “one-strike veto”  (yi piao foujue) policy for its evaluation of top-ranked tourism scenic areas: if the toilets aren’t up to scratch, a scenic area will automatically lose its 5A ranking. To establish standards for how lower-level agencies should go about their toilet construction and renovation, the NTA promulgated in August 2016 a three-level evaluation system for “tourism toilet quality.” In addition to carrying sticks, the NTA doles out carrots too: it awards titles such as “Outstanding City of the Toilet Revolution” to recognize top performers.

The Future of the Toilet Revolution

The mobilization of resources and local enthusiasm have led to results. According to state media, between 2015 and 2017 the NTA was able to get the Ministry of Finance to allocate almost 1.8 billion yuan ($264 million) to subsidize toilet construction, funding which helped spur localities to invest a further 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) of their own budgets into toilets over the same period. In November 2017, the NTA declared that 68,000 toilets had already been constructed or upgraded, exceeding its original target by nearly 20%. Consequently, the NTA announced a “New Three-Year Action Plan” that raised its original target of 57,000 to 64,000 new or upgraded toilets by 2020. The new plan also extended the Toilet Revolution to cities, villages, and western and central regions.

Despite the risk of wasteful investment by local governments, which the NTA has cracked down on repeatedly, the upside potential of the Toilet Revolution seems to guarantee its perpetuation and expansion in the near term. In November 2017, Xi issued another directive that said “Our toilet problem is no small matter, it’s an important aspect in the construction of urban and rural civilization, not just scenic areas but also cities and rural areas should pay special attention…” Xi’s directive made the Toilet Revolution front-page news in the People’s Daily and the lead item on the nightly Xinwen Lianbo national newscast. This was followed in March 2018 by the official incorporation of the Toilet Revolution into the annual Government Work Report for the first time. This development seems to connect the Toilet Revolution with China’s existing State Council program of subsidizing rural households for buying toilets, which has increased these households’ access to sanitary toilets from 7.5% in 1993 to over 80% by the end of 2016. Beijing aims for full coverage by 2030.

The bottom line of the Toilet Revolution is that politics still matters in Chinese governance, even under Xi. It’s a campaign that illuminates the structure of a successful policy initiative by a Chinese government agency, which managed to win high-level favor by couching a parochial (albeit public interest) cause within central priorities, and then leveraged this favor to attract central finance and bolster local accountability in order to elicit compliance and sustained administrative results. It even sheds light on elite politics as Xi has used his considerable political capital to coopt and champion a popular program that advances one of his overarching priorities: to raise the living standard of rural Chinese citizens.

Get Our Stuff