A story I always tell — heck I told it earlier this week — about China revolves around toilet paper. My story is as follows:

A year or so ago I was in Vietnam visiting my daughter, who was there studying.  We were in an airport when I walked away to go to a rest room. As I neared the rest room, I realized I did not have any toilet paper on me so I walked back to my daughter and asked her for some.  She looked at me like I had two heads, stated that she had none, and suggested I just get some from the bathroom. I then queried whether there would be any in the bathroom, to which she replied, “of course, why wouldn’t there be.” I then told her of how the toilet paper gets stolen from virtually every bathroom in China.  She looked at me puzzled. Later I asked her about poison being put into food in Vietnam and she said she told me she had never heard of such a thing.

Just this week, I got into a long discussion with a reporter for a U.S. based national newspaper. This person is now the China reporter for the paper, but he previously lived in Vietnam and he has lived in various Asian cities over the last decade. We talked about differences between Vietnam and China, including poison in food. He said China was the only country in which that was a problem. I then relayed how I used to believe that China’s poor record regarding product defects was grossly overrated and due only to the fact that China made so many products. But my view changed someone very high up in the United States’ Consumer Protection Agency empirically refuted my theory.  This person told me that year in and year out, China’s defect rate (at least those that make it to the agency) is six times worse per product made than any other country.  Wow.

I am bringing this all up today because though the whole toilet paper thing is my story, dammit, it seems the Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Blog is the first to go to print with it. The post “Toilet Paper Abuse Prompts China Morality Debate” starts out by asking “What does abuse of free toilet paper at public bathrooms say about the state of a country’s public morality?”

It seems that linking morality to toilet paper has become a big issue in Qingdao, where the city is stocking toilet paper in the public restrooms for tourists:

That’s the question Chinese people have been debating since news emerged late last month that an experimental free toilet paper program in a coastal Chinese city had resulted in users making off with as much as two kilometers of the gratis paper per day.

In a story discussed widely on provincial TV stations, as well as on Chinese social media sites, sanitation authorities in the picturesque city of Qingdao say they have spent around 1.5 million yuan ($236,000) since June 15 installing and stocking free toilet paper dispensers at public lavatories in 24 locations – part of an effort to make things more convenient for tourists during the peak summer months.

How is it that the city has spent nearly $10,000 on toilet paper per location in less than a month? It’s not just about overuse, according to those responsible for maintaining supplies.

“Most people take some before they go into the toilet then grab some more on their way out,” Zhu Xincong, who oversees one of Qingdao’s public toilets, said in an interview with Shandong TV.

So what is it with the toilet paper in China?  Poverty? Morality? Something else?  And serious question, is rampant theft of toilet paper common in any other country? And what about poisoning food? Is that a related question or a completely separate one.  And does any other country have the same sort of problem? Does product defects relate at all to either of these things?

And what about the cleanliness of the restrooms in a country?  How does China compare and what does that mean? A very recent (and very thoughtful) Harvard Business Review Post, “Of Clean Toilets and Competitive Economies,” talks of how Singapore’s spotless restrooms evidence its competitive advantage. Is there some truth to that?  And if there is (or even if there isn’t), how do China’s restrooms rate on the world scale? Who gives a crap?

Have at it people…


  • I don’t think it’s poverty, or that it’s only poverty.
    People have been stealing the napkins and ketchup packets at Hong Kong McDonald’s since the 70s. They continue to do so today, which is why napkins and ketchup packets are doled out like gold ingots from behind the counter, and not set out for everyone to take, like they are overseas.
    And, at least in the 90s / early 2000s, my friends and I were still noticing people stealing toilet paper from office block toilets here, to the point that one colleague at a TV station used to bring her own to work.
    Keep in mind that Hong Kong is one of the most affluent places in Asia. And it’s a place that is quite good about social mores — queuing, not pushing and shoving in line, giving your seat up for the elderly, etc.
    Still, I’ve never seen such an effort in taking hotel slippers, restaurant teaspoons, free cookies at corporate receptions, etc.
    And I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. As a girl who grew up with HK Chinese parents, I often find myself tossing unused jam or butter packets into my purse, since I don’t want a restaurant to waste them and throw them out. (My European husband is often appalled).
    But I draw the line at toilet paper. It really does screw the person being you in line for the loo.
    Here people will take stuff, but not to the determent of others.

  • Caly

    Poverty mentality. Who is raising the current generation of “little emperors” and teaching them how to behave? Elderly people who survived the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, that’s who. Take, take, take. Me, me, me. These are not just 暴发户 nouveau riche issues, but systemic ones from a very recent past with absolutely no material security and a total distrust of the state. I attribute a lot of anti-social behavior here to that.

  • TPman

    On the cleanliness issue, China has to be one of the worst (relative to level of development). I’m sure there are some pretty horrific toilet scenes in SE Asia or India, for example, but the flip side is that a five star hotel lobby bathroom in these places is typically impossiby clean. In China, you are much better off in a five star hotel than most other places, but they are not to the same standards. Good luck anywhere else. Also, even new buildings (as in build last year) seem to have this pre-reform period feature where by toilets are designed to channel raw sewage gas into the bathroom. That often makes it possible to identify the location of a bathroom in an office building by odor-geolocation.

    This is about cleanliness, so I won’t talk about the public morality/TP theft issue, except to acknowledge that bathroom cleanliness is inherently more difficult to maintain in an environment where people casually spit, pee, drop cigarette ashes, litter, etc., vs. an environment where people are more respectful of those around them. That said, I think this issue relates to your comment on product defects/safety. This is an issue of accountability and, pun intended, not giving a crap.

    This is in evidence all over China – generally poor building maintenance standards, things looking like crap after barely a year of use (or because they were never completed properly, just judged “close enough”), funny Chinglish signs everywhere (no one bothered to check), formatting of high-level business documents that is worse than a junior-high term paper anywhere else, etc. All of these are little things that basically fall into someone’s “not my job” description.

  • aussie in china

    Meaningless drivel as per usual from the WSJ on Chinese affairs
    Perhaps China could learn from others and segregate the toilets into Chinese and non-Chinese. 

  • John Chyrsotom

    All a bit gross IMHO. Not a good story, neither accurate, true or particularly pleasant.

  • Roberto

    It’s not just toilet paper … it’s toilet seats. I don’t know if things have changed, but 10+ years ago it was unusual to find a toilet seat in a public toilet (and I’m talking about Hong Kong … on the mainland, fuggeddaboutit). Who finds a toilet seat from a public toilet an object of desire, I have no idea. Which then leads to people squatting on the rim of the toilet. Which then leads to people squatting on the seats where there are seats. If you haven’t seen footprints on a toilet seat (hundreds of times) you don’t really know China. 🙂

    What’s the reason? 

    Two main reasons, I think. 

    One, the devolution of every societal transaction to its economic basis, and the desire on the part of every right-thinking Chinese to get rich gloriously. In other words, toilet paper costs X; if I take the toilet paper from the public restroom, I’ve saved X. If I take these hotel jams (often quite nice!), I postpone having to buy my own jam for a week. If I steal them regularly, I never have to buy jam.

    Second reason, the desire on the part of many to “beat the system”. There’s a phrase in Cantonese for this that I have forgotten. Joyce Lau may know the one I’m thinking of. To beat the system is laudatory, and beating others is integral to beating the system. I have often heard the phrase “win-win” in my dealings in Hong Kong and China, but rarely has it been meant seriously.

    These reasons are more relevant to the poisoned baby (and other) food issue, I think. The “getting rich” and “winning at all costs” societal ethic is so strong that any possible consequences (e.g. hundreds of babies are poisoned) are insignificant or immaterial. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get rich and get ahead.

    And society has adapted … like Dan, we learn to carry our own toilet paper. Those of us who can afford it buy imported brands. And so on.

  • Nulle

    if you know how to read traditional chinese, here is a webpage (updated daily with new stories) of poisons in food in China (source:oriental daily)


    poisonous chicken wings, pea tips, chinese deli chickens, salt (using industrial salt instead of NaCl), etc.

  • Hua Qiao

    Read Frank Dikkoter’s excellent book, Mao’s Great Famine, about the 40 million who starved during the Great Leap Forward and you will begin to see the connections to behavior today.

  • Matt

    Nice try, bad article.  I’m an American expat living in China.  Maybe your anecdote was true a few years ago, but in my first 12 months in China, I haven’t experienced this once.

    Makes a good heading though!  I’m sure people in the US will love to click on your catchy link, just as I unfortunately did.

  • I guess everyone feels a different part of the elephant, but I’m really curious where Matt and John have been in China to not have noticed this problem (It still existed in Shanghai as of a year ago). I suppose expats and businessmen may go to places more likely to have all of the amenities than students and most native Chinese, but I would never have dared leave my apartment or dorm without toilet paper and the same was true of all of my friends and co-workers.

    • bystander

      Yeah, Matt’s and John’s responses leave me scratching my head too.  If you hang out in nice hotels and shopping centers downtown Beijing and Shanghai then you won’t notice this problem, but if you get out into what can realistically be called “China” per se, and if you have bowel movements during the day (haha), then you’re gonna find out about this.

      I think the post kind of suggests that thievery is the main culprit, but I think that failure to stock toilet paper in the first place is the more common problem.  Of course, the TP is often not provided because it would be stolen, but in many public bathrooms they have never even considered providing toilet paper as far as I can tell.  It’s assumed that you will bring your own if you feel you need it.

      I was in Harbin recently, playing music at a big festival, with temporary toilet facilities installed here and there on the festival grounds.  Not only was there no TP and no soap, but everyone wanted to shake hands with the laowai in the bathroom.  haha.  Some of my friends said that the bright side was that this kind of thing boosts your immune system, and that’s probably true.

  • Laowai4life

    My friends where over at my dorm room one day when I asked them to politely excuse the Starbuck’s themed paper towels. 

    One day I walked into the kitchen and my father was looking of her shoulder like he didn’t want anyone to notice what he was doing. He had the Kikkoman bottle open and was squeezing individual soy sauce packets into the bottle. He later confessed that this was far too inefficient. 

    When you grow up in an environment where money it tight, whether you one day have money or not the psychology often remains. I think this is central to the toilet paper issue in China. 

    Beyond this, also enters the general issue of not providing services for free in a nation that has never had free services. People have no idea how to deal with a free service, they have had no experience with personal limitations, and thus the service is exploited. 

    As for Singapore and its bathrooms, this is a rather unfair comparison. It is illegal to chew gum in Singapore on the street. When you cannot expectorate freely you are naturally going to have cleaner bathrooms. Furthermore, Singapore’s GDP per capita has long exceeded that of China’s. Comparing Singapore to China is like comparing Switzerland to the United States. The Switz economy would fit into Idaho, yet, because of the size of the Swiss population and level of development they have a much higher standard of living. The same can be said for Singapore and China. 

    Concerning China and food. This is a separate issue related primarily to the regulatory environment in China, as well as to the unique problem’s that face Chinese agriculture. China is the only nation on earth with 300 million farmers on an average of 1 and 1/2 acres of land. With that many farmers there is absolutely no way to guarantee safety in the production process. It is simply impossible. This problem simply expands as you examine their entire market operation. 

  • Roberto

    “I’m an American expat living in China.  Maybe your anecdote was true a few years ago, but in my first 12 months in China, I haven’t experienced this once.”

    Gated community, chauffeur-driven car, high-rise office complex with Starbucks on the ground floor, five-star hotel for dinner, repeat? 

    Matt, you are possibly the only person (Ambassador Locke probably excepted) in a country of 1.3 billion and a glorious 5,000+ year history of who has managed to spend a year trusting – successfully! – that there will be paper in the toilet. Either that or your logistical abilities are absolutely superb and you’ve managed to avoid public restrooms for 12 months!

  • Not convinced by any of the possible explanations here. 
    I mean, as opposed to “China hasn’t had free services”, why not argue it the other way round, and say back in the days of the communes, everything was owned by everyone, so people are used to being allowed to take whatever they want? Seems like it makes just as much (or rather, just as little) sense.
    I’m still not convinced that you need any deeper explanation for China’s apparent problems than poverty plus breakneck change, but comparisons with other Asian countries are certainly very interesting.

    • MHB

      I like how you grab the other end of the stick. I will try to help you break it.

      Here’s the general recipe:
      Take one cultural difference. Take one description of historical difference. Add causative language and moral scorn to taste.

      Why not examine the actual thought processes of someone who takes toilet paper from a public restroom? I will approximate by giving me own thought processes when grabbing a massive handful of napkins at fast food restaurants:

      ‘Oh, I need some, it is useful. I will take as many as I can. Then I can use as many as I want (I am normally messy) and I can have some for later. Maybe I will need to blow my nose, maybe someone else will. Whatever, they are useful to me.’

      Does anyone honestly think, as they reach for a napkin, ‘I should only take one, because if everyone took more than one, there wouldn’t be any left for the people behind me’?! Are you expressing your moral goodness by declining to take as much paper as you feel like? They are offered, but you refuse.

      Dan keeps offering out opportunities for moral judgment of the Chinese – see the discussion on public morality a few months ago – and scorn and patronising waffle flows forth. They can’t help it because of their poor past. It’s the Communists’ fault. They are selfish people. They are not used to such modern advances as the public provision of basic sanitary items. I have a question, why does the internet bring out such a low standard of moral discussion?

      (I’m ignoring the food poison topic, as it involves evidence of which I’m ignorant and I don’t see the immediate cultural link… though it could be there).

  • Suewangfeng

    It is, as you suggested (and presumably suspect) meaningless drivel.

  • I think China has a competitive economy too. I think it’s all a matter of implementation. While the government sort this out, I guess, it is indeed better to have your own roll of tissue.

  • Tom C

    Not sure about the relevance to economic competitiveness but likely a lesson here about the level of social responsibility (zero) and extremes of wealth (world-class) in CHina.
    FOr what it’s worth I visited the site of Formosa Plastics’ massive new naptha plant on Taiwan’s west coast when it was being built 15 years ago. Much if not most of the workforce was southeast Asian – Thai, Filipino, thought they weren’t around at the time. Signs in the toilets threatened prosecution for anyone stealing the toilet paper.

  • r_s_g

    You have to pay for napkins in most of the restaurants too. Good thing those little packs of napkins you buy at the restaurant also double as toilet paper…

  • David

    It has been a few years (I left China in 2008, and only came back for a short visit in 2010), but I honestly never realized that thievery could be the cause for the lack of TP in bathrooms. I assumed it had never been supplied in the first place, because (outside of Starbucks and 5 star hotels) I had never seen it in a public bathroom in China.

  • Bob JustARegularGuy

    I went to the six stall bathroom. No toilet paper or anything to wash your anus with. I ran around the store quickly looking for toilet paper breaking open 2 plastic covers on which appeared to be toilet paper and
    finally I broke up a 4 pack of toilet paper and took one running to the
    bathroom. The Philippines have many security guards every where. When I
    was done, I had security guards following me around like I committed a
    crime, they wouldn’t let me out or pass certain area and this guy in
    black, the head security started to question me as i was speaking to
    management to tell them what happen. Management said no problem and they
    were sorry, but the security guy in black who’s last name name by the
    way is Alexander kept harassing me. He brought with him one package I
    had open looking for toilet paper and told me I had to pay for it. My
    friend who spoke Tagalog said this is BS. I was treated like a criminal. I through out 500 peso bill and told them to keep the change. Alexander suddenly blurted out in perfect English, you heard him, he said you can keep the change. My Filipino friend got the change.
    These security guards had no idea the reason behind all this. They jump
    to conclusions thinking I was some crazy guy trying to find toilet
    paper. They could put it together. They didnt ask questions and only
    assumed I was trying to steal toilet paper. Apparently if there is not toilet paper, Filipinos use the toilet water it self to wash their buts, (pewet). This was only a short time ago and I am still considering suing NCCC market in the Philippines for such a traumatic event.