- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

BEIJING At least 300 million Chinese are die-hard spitters, the authors of a new survey estimate.

From illiterate peasants to university graduates, China's spitting masses discharge a daily tidal wave of phlegm that washes from the poorest village to the richest metropolis.

Yet there is some dry ground for optimism for anyone marooned in the cross fire. Fighting the habit are crusaders such as Victor Yuan, sociologist, reformed spitter, and China's leading market researcher.

Mr. Yuan believes the struggle against spit is crucial to integrating China with the outside world.

"Some people accuse me of deliberately showing the dirty and ugly side of China," he said. "But I feel it's important that people begin to realize spitting is a bad habit, then they'll try to overcome it."

Fearful of negative publicity for Beijing's 2008 Olympic bid, Mr. Yuan's critics are angry with him for choosing last week while a team from the International Olympic Committee was in Beijing to publish his survey finding that 300 million Chinese are die-hard spitters.

"All Chinese want Beijing to win the Olympics," said Mr. Yuan, "because it can earn some 'face' for our country in a grand way. But if we really care about our face, why don't we pay attention to small matters such as not spitting everywhere?"

Mr. Yuan's research firm, Horizon, interviewed almost 5,600 men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 in villages and cities across China. The findings showed that about one-quarter of all Chinese citizens are confirmed spitters.

As expected, more men than women confessed to spitting, but other results confound the usual stereotypes.

"Young, educated urban residents were almost as likely to spit as peasants, manual workers and the elderly," he said.

Beijing-based consultant Ann Stevenson-Yang, a veteran American observer of Chinese society, cited several reasons for the habit.

"Firstly, the air quality is usually bad, which makes one spit more. From a medical point of view, Chinese believe that spitting is a way to clear the respiratory system; unlike in the West, Chinese think it is unhealthy to swallow spit," she said.

But fundamentally, she said, it's because China lacks a culture of public behavior, such as consideration for others.

While foreign visitors to China may be impressed by private hospitality, they are often shocked by public discourtesy and indifference to strangers. Doors are rarely held open, lines of people dissolve into pushy crowds and loud voices rule public places.

The government frequently urges people to be "civilized citizens," but rarely do the granny detectives, empowered by red armbands, successfully fine spitters.

Doctors argue in vain that freestyle spitting spreads respiratory disease.

Appalled by the state of affairs, American Chinese cosmetics queen Kan Yue-sai has published a manifesto of etiquette, which has become an unlikely best seller.

Besides advice on tackling Western cutlery and sit-down toilets, Miss Kan forbids nose or ear picking and mandates orderly lines in public places.

"Spitting in public is very impolite and extremely bad for the environment," she said. "If you have to spit, do it in a tissue."

Mr. Yuan was encouraged by the 71 percent of his survey respondents who agreed with the statement: "It is OK to spit, but one must pay attention to location and method."

Some 60 percent claimed to be embarrassed when spitting in the close proximity of other people, while a hard-core 20 percent said they must spit whenever the need arises.

With the born-again zeal of the recent convert, Mr. Yuan wants to clean up China.

"I think it's easy to make a place to look clean and civilized, but much harder to make individuals behave in a civilized fashion," he said.

"When we pay enough attention to courtesy and manners, then we can gradually improve the quality of our people. Only then can China truly become the civilized nation we are so proud of."

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