30 September 2023

Misleading: This photo has nothing to do with protest messages in China’s public bathrooms

The photo first appeared more than a decade ago. It was used in multiple blog posts discussing the conditions of public toilets in China since then. It is not related to the recent trend of leaving protest messages in restrooms.


Multiple Twitter accounts (here, here, and here) recently claimed that in mainland China, guards are placed in public toilets to monitor people. 

They all shared the same image showing a woman in uniform-like clothes watching cubicles inside a restroom.

Some say it is happening specifically in Beijing. Other posts implied the guards are there to prevent people from posting anti-Xi Jinping messages and graffiti in bathrooms, a trend that has been widely reported as the “toilet revolution.” 

It became a thing after a rare public display of protest messages on a banner over a bridge in Beijing made headlines around the world in mid-October before the Communist Party Congress.   

Together, these posts have over 3,000 likes and 500 retweets at the time of writing. The same claim and image were posted on Hong Kong’s LIHKG

However, this image is at least 12 years old.  It has nothing to do with recent anti-Chinese government messages found in public restrooms.

The earliest version of the image Annie Lab found was posted on a Japanese website on Dec. 25, 2012. According to the file’s metadata, the photo was created two years earlier, on March 26, 2010.

Caption: The metadata of the photo found on the 2012 Japanese post says it was taken in March 2010.

We also found another Japanese blog post with this image published in May 2015, which discusses the condition of China’s public toilets at the time and said it was common to see toilet stalls without doors in China.

The same image was also posted in May 2018 on PTT, a bulletin board system based in Taiwan, discussing the public toilets in China.

In the past, it was indeed not uncommon to have staff inside public restrooms who collected usage fees in China. This CGTN news report features people remembering the old public toilets with no doors or dividers, for example.

This 1996 academic paper looked into this very topic and said the most common type of public toilets was “trench-type squat toilets, some without doors.”

Annie Lab could not verify if China has hired people to watch public restrooms, but we can confirm that the viral photo has nothing to do with the recent “toilet revolution.” 

According to some news reports, public bathrooms without surveillance cameras have been used for posting dissenting messages since last month, while the government has reportedly strengthened security measures in public, especially on roads with heavy traffic and bridges.