BEIJING — Ever popular on the Internet in China are videos showing Chinese boxers knocking out foreign rivals. Ding-Ding! KO! If an international fight ends instead with the Chinese boxer on the floor, online commentators are no less active, condemning the loser as a "national disgrace."
Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who at the turn of 20th century won several high-profile contests against foreign wrestlers and boxers, is regarded as a national hero who boosted Chinese people's confidence at that difficult time in the nation's history. Meanwhile Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong-American kung fu film legend of 1970s, also achieved national icon status.
These are just a few popular examples that demonstrate a more widespread anxiety and weakness of the Chinese people's national mindset. When a Chinese viewer watches a video of a Chinese boxer knocking out a foreign rival, he may feel a moment of national inspiration, but it can never be translated into real national self-confidence.
The label of "Sick Man of Asia" is deep in Chinese people's collective memory. Reclaiming bonafide national self-esteem will take time, even if in objective terms of national strength China is today among the world's great powers.
Chinese people's inferiority complex is manifested in two intertwined and extreme emotions. On the one hand, China can be said to have an abundance of nationalist sentiment and are prone to hyper-sensitivity and defensiveness in the face of criticism from foreigners. At the same time, Chinese are famously for their xenophilia — the foreign moon is rounder than the one in China, as the old proverb goes.
Low national self-esteem is a shadow that winds around Chinese people's collective mind like a ghost, showing up in cultural works and school textbooks. But it is also displayed in everyday life. Take, for example, the image of Chinese tourists. Some act like nouveau riche, sweeping up luxurious goods to show off when they get back from such fancy places as Paris or Milan. Others simply behave with appalling manners. The Chinese press, however, manages to only report on certain nice words said by the foreigners about our fellow countrymen. Put together, it's just another sign of China's lack of national self-esteem.
Gucci Hong Kong. Photo: Kwanyatsw
There is much talk about the "mentality" of a great power, but even more important is to truly incarnate the strength and status of a great power. Then the mentality, and the words, carry weight. Internationally China is still on the road to becoming that kind of power.
To have the inner confidence of a great power first requires that China's words are respected. This takes time. It requires strength and solidity on both economic and defense fronts, industrial capacity and technology level. Then there is soft power, which ultimately requires changes at the individual, human level. A nation builds confidence by having people who are well-informed, knowledgeable and cosmopolitan enough to have a deeper understanding of the world and oneself.
Of course, the world's rules have long been dictated by the West. Now China has the chance to contribute to making new rules. In the best case, this will mean responses to political, economic and cultural challenges that better reflect the global order. But it is a back-and-forth, which also requires the Chinese to mesh with the rest of the world. All of this requires a kind of genuine national confidence that China is only just now beginning to acquire.