Recently the Asiatimes published an article on a Korean journalist who wrote a rather unfriendly blog about the lack of public manners in China. The blog elicited a range of comments from other Koreans, many of whom felt that the blogger was being unduly racist towards his Chinese brethren.
This is a discussion that most of us involved in the China field have been having for years and that will continually resurface. It always seems to come down to this: "the Chinese have private hospitality and personal warmth but lack public consciousness, while Westerners and Japanese have public consciousness but lack private hospitality and personal warmth."
I've heard this cliche repeated in so many different ways since I first became involved with China 20 years ago. Chinese don't seem to care about dirtying public spaces, but are extremely fastidious in their own homes. They welcome people into their homes with a hospitality unseen by most Westerners. Etc. Etc.
Of course these are stereotypes, likely to be broken by individuals. Just as private civility is the consequence of 2,000 years of "Confucian culture," one could argue that the Chinese sense of public space (or lack thereof) is a product of history, or of the environment. I have heard people say that the Cultural Revolution is responsible for this lack of civility, while others have said that during the Mao years, the Chinese were far more conscious of public duties than they are today.
Personally, I have learned a great deal about hospitality from people in China. As for spitting and littering, I've seen this diminish, at least in the big cities, over the 20 years I've been traveling in and out of China. It is fairly rare these days to see people in Shanghai do such things, and when it happens, it is likely to be a "bumpkin" from the countryside. In fact, I'd make a distinction at this point between urban manners/habits and rural ones.
As for the Korean blogger, I have heard other Koreans make such blanket statements about the Chinese many times. Japanese too. It seems to be a mark of distinction for Koreans and Japanese to look down on Chinese manners--a way of separating them, lifting them up and making them seem more "civilized" by contrast to their Chinese neighbors from whom they learned civilization in the first place--irony of ironies and a tremendous chip to carry on one's shoulders.
Could one argue that this "lack of public consciousness" is a product of environment? To be sure, the 1.3 billion people makes for tight quarters in China. Hawking and spitting are undoubtedly the consequence of the terrible pollution, and the constant circulation of respiratory diseases. I even find myself indulging in a few loogies now and then after spending a few weeks in polluted cities such as Beijing, so I am sympathetic to the practice. What always gets me is how people in cities of 16 million plus can get along with each other so well.
I'm sure this discussion will continue to plague us for years to come.