China is facing a couple of major soirÃ©es in the next few years: the Beijing Olympic Games in '08 and the Shanghai Expo in '10. A recent Dissent feature looks at China's past attempts at updating hygienic etiquette:
The [YouTube] posting includes footage from a propaganda film shot in Maoist times (1949-1976). Back then, as now, spitting on the ground is targeted as not just unhygienic but symbolic of backwardness. (It is no accident that in the YouTube footage young people are shown telling people much older than them to expectorate into a handkerchief.)
And mass campaigns of this sort began well before the Communist Party took power. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party, an earlier authoritarian regime, also launched them. Injunctions against spitting were part of Chiang's "New Life Movement" of the 1930s. They, like the current etiquette drive, took place at a time when efforts were underway to incorporate Confucian ideals into a drive to modernize the country.
Check out one example of the anti-spitting propaganda videos still circulating from Mao's reign here.