Xi Jinping awkwardly takes praise for his “Toilet Revolution” policy

General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping appeared to squirm a little embarrassedly when a representative heaped praise on the paramount leader for his thoughtful “Toilet Revolution” policy, at the fourth session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), yesterday, Monday, March 8.

Xi was attending a forum for deputies of the National People’s Congress when a female representative made flattering remarks about the policy, perhaps unaware of the controversies that have hounded implementation of the grand toilet modernization plan, including high-level corruption that saw a senior leader expelled from the party less than two months ago.

Xi appeared to squirm a little when the representative praised him for thinking of even such little details, such as toilets, on behalf of the people.

“Even toilets, this kind of trivial issue, you think of for the people,” the representative said. “They are all very, very grateful,” she gushed.

Xi Jinping first announced his “Toilet Revolution” in November, 2015, making a splash on the front page of the communist party mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily.

China’s public bathrooms were described at the time as unhygienic, filthy, crude, anxiety-inducing, and often in short supply. The toilet issue involved public health, and was embarrassing as international tourists were growing in numbers.

Chinese public toilets in Tonghua, China: October 7, 2005. Dominic Rivard

The Grand, Master Plan

A plan was devised to build toilets to modern standard, maintain them, and improve bathroom etiquette.

Perhaps Xi’s awkward expression at yesterday’s plenary session was a response to the representative referring to the toilet issue as “trivial.” For Xi, the issue is far from a trifle.

“Toilet issues are not petty matters, but an important aspect of improving infrastructure in urban and rural areas,” Xi told Xinhua News in November, 2017.

Between 2016 and 2019, China spent RMB21 billion (US$3.2 billion) building or renovating 68,000 public restrooms at tourist sites in urban areas, and more than 10 million toilets improved in rural areas.

But implementation of the policy has been plagued by controversies, and they have been coming to a head lately.

The Urban-Rural Divide

In a village in Lingbao, Henan Province, a team of workers lead by the village chief recently began demolishing every outhouse on orders of the city government, according to Bitter Winter. By the end of February nearly 40 outhouses had already been demolished, but no new facilities had been built.

Village residents were left to relieve themselves in the fields or by the river, including elderly people with mobility issues, according to Bitter Winter‘s report: “Who will pay for Xi Jinping’s Vanity Projects?”

In urban areas, the policies have seen problems of politicians using “eye-catching technology components in public toilet design in order to outperform each other and further their careers,” according to an article in Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies publication Perspectives.

In an article titled “China’s Toilet Revolution: an Experiment in Top-Down Innovation,” (Sophie) Jiayuan Wang says that the program has seen technology used for technology’s sake, rather than a real net benefit for the end user.

In the urban part of the program, the use of digital technology is a highlight, Wang points out, noting that GIS technology has been used to enable people to find the nearest public toilet via a mobile app – the National Public Toilet Cloud.

“In a firm break with the image of open-plan squat latrines, the new facilities have spared no penny in putting in hardware which maximizes user comfort from self-cleaning toilets to auto-dispensers of toilet paper,” Wang writes.

At the back end, the system also alerts operators responsible for maintenance real-time reports on air quality, humidity, and odor levels.

“Catering to the specific needs of tourists, the program also provides free Wi-Fi, ATMs, and phone charging stations in public toilets,” Wang noted.

While many of these innovations have positive benefits, some extravagant examples have seen the installation of flat-screen televisions and facial-recognition systems on toilet paper dispensers to prevent theft.

Made in China

Implementation of the Toilet Revolution also became a hotbed of corruption. Apple Daily, July 2019, quoted a China Central Television (CCTV) report saying a village in Hebei Province with a population of just 1,800 had registered to renovate more than 680 public toilets.

A January 31, 2021 report in Apple Daily, quoting Chinese news media site The Paper alleged that in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, hundreds of millions of RMB had been spent between 2016 and 2020 to build more than 80,000 toilets. However, most of the toilets have design defects, poor manufacturing quality, or have suffered from a lack of maintenance.

… the many rural toilets that cost a bomb to build either became “awkward toilets” or “empty toilets” — their practical value and usage rate are extremely low and can only be counted as a “makeover project” of the village-level public management team at best. ” ~Professor Zhang Rui, Think China.

At the helm of the Toilet Revolution policy implementation stood Li Jinzao, who was Vice-Minister of Culture and Tourism, and Chairman of the China National Tourism Administration at the time.

On July 29, 2020, Li was placed under investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. In September, he was removed from his post of Vice-Minister of Culture and Tourism, and on January 25, 2021, he was expelled from the Communist Party of China, and banned from public office.

Former Vice-Minister Li spoke about China’s Toilet Revolution in the following video made by China’s state media propaganda outlet CGTN.

While China’s leaders often tout the idea that China has a “continuous history of 5,000 years of civilization,” the show’s host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, states in the program: “For China to become a more civilized society, the hygiene of the masses must be improved, especially in rural areas, and for China’s tourism industry to blossom, better bathrooms are needed.”

It just goes to show that even ancient civilizations are never too old to learn.

National People’s Congress representative gushed praises on Xi Jinping, for considering people’s toilet issues, March 8, 2021.

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