China’s Toilet Revolution

Alumni of China Philanthropy Program tackles issues around bathroom access in China

“Toilet issues are not petty matters but an important aspect of improving infrastructure in urban and rural areas” — Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking to Xinhua news agency in November 2017 

Each year, November 19 marks the date of an important revolution in ChinaWorld Toilet and China Toilet Revolution Awareness Day. Though washroom puns often accompany headlines about China’s effort to improve the state of its public restrooms, the issue is no laughing matter in the eyes of the country’s leaders. President Xi’s “Toilet Revolution” announcement in 2015 was front-page news in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and a useful cipher for understanding Beijing’s policy priorities. At the time of Xi’s announcement, China’s public bathrooms were described as unhygienic, filthy, crude, anxiety-inducing, and often in short supply. The condition of the country’s bathrooms was both a mounting issue for China’s growing tourism industry as well as an ongoing public health crisis.

Lin Wei, a public welfare specialist from Shenzhen and graduate of the Ash Center’s Executive Leaders in Philanthropy (ELP) executive education program, cares deeply about public health and has made it his mission to tackle the issues of poor bathroom quality and lack of facilities across China. He’s not abashed to talk about what some deem an impolite topic. “Toilet issues are closely related to everyone,” he said. “The Chinese economy has developed over the past few decades, but we lack these basic public services.”

In addition to the basic sanitation needs raised by China’s toilet campaign, Lin is quick to note how problems with restrooms disproportionately impact women and schoolchildren. With schoolchildren, Lin demonstrated that poor restroom facilities in schools were having a detrimental effect on children’s welfare. “Many primary and secondary schools, not only in relatively undeveloped areas, have this problem [of too few or unclean restrooms],” Lin said, leaving children forced to consider never using the bathrooms at school, an unhealthy practice.

Lin devised a three-pronged approach to tackling China’s toilet crisis: building toilets to contemporary standards, maintaining them, and improving bathroom etiquette. Though it sounds simple, the issue is multifaceted, with multiple stakeholders.

Lin ultimately turned to the China Global Philanthropy Institute, a leading nonprofit management and philanthropy training program in China, to help him drive his advocacy forward. The institute partners with the Ash Center to run the ELP training program, and in March 2018, Lin journeyed to Cambridge for the three-week executive education session. Led by Ash Center Director Tony Saich and Edward Cunningham, director of the Center’s China Programs, ELP was created specifically to support leaders in China’s burgeoning philanthropic sector. The instruction blends skills-based sessions, case-based teaching, discussions with philanthropic leaders in the US, and visits to foundations in Boston and DC.

Lin Wei
Lin Wei speaks to a group of ELP program alumni and prospective students at the CGPI offices in Shenzhen

Lin applied to the program hoping to strengthen his public leadership skills in service of the Toilet Revolution, but ultimately learned far more from the sessions. “I gained a keen awareness that if we want to solve these huge and complex social problems, we must focus on a specific goal to produce the greatest social value of our program,” he said.

Lin leveraged this insight and new skills to launch a number of initiatives back in China, including a pilot program in Shenzhen that collected data on school toilets from different countries and led to the development of the first school toilet standards in China. Now Lin is partnering with local governments and schools to raise funds to overhaul bathrooms while ensuring that everyone, from principals to students, is educated on proper bathroom etiquette.                                                                                                               

“Lin has a passion for a critical aspect of the built environment—how does infrastructure reinforce implicit and explicit gender bias, and shape access to public goods and services?” remarked Cunningham. “Our ELP program seeks to inspire individuals in the social sector to ask such questions, and then equip them with tools and frameworks to go about addressing these issues. Lin Wei embodies this combination of curiosity, conviction, and deployment of concepts such as stakeholder analysis and persuasion to change policy for the better.”

Lin is hopeful about the future of the Toilet Revolution. “If we carry out work in building good toilets, managing them well, and everyone respects the new public resources, we can gradually solve some of these broader social problems,” he predicted.

Written by Sarah Grucza, Communications Specialist