HONG KONG — A journalist from mainland China asked me recently whether the current unrest in Hong Kong is perhaps because residents there "are losing their confidence."
The question took me by surprise. I've heard people in Hong Kong complain and criticize a lot, particularly with regards to Chinese mainlanders, but I never thought these grumblings had anything to do with "confidence." Some say that too many Chinese mainlanders are moving in, that spaces and facilities can no longer cope. Others focus on issues such as urban planning, or on the failure of social security, education and healthcare facilities to meet local needs.
Having said that, the "confidence" question was also something I might have anticipated given the term's popularity on the mainland, where it is used by authority figures and the media alike to "magically" explain everything from foreign policy to Hong Kong.
Two years ago, at an academic conference, I saw a famous professor from a certain field severely reprimanding the students present. The professor called the students stooges for following a western academic model: by always specifying the sources they quote, for example, and by providing detailed and comprehensive references when preparing speeches. He also criticized them for spending too much time learning foreign languages.
In the professor's view, academia, in its current form, is a purely western product. And in trying to adapt to it, Chinese people have discarded their own writing style and scholarly traditions. They have forgotten their ancestors.
"We ought to have more confidence," the professor said. "As our country becomes more powerful and more developed, more and more foreign students will come to China to study. We'll then gradually grasp the discourse correctly while our own method of conducting academic work will become the world's mainstream."
If the Chinese are truly confident, in other words, they won't need to worry about whether their academic tools and formatting rules meet international standards, the professor concluded.
Ever since the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), when the Chinese empire encountered setbacks, Chinese historians have attached great importance to the country's loss of confidence. China's major ideological trends, which have ranged from "applying science and technology based on traditional Chinese values" to "total westernization," have all been related to the issue of confidence, according to historians.
But while China may indeed have confidence issues, it cannot expect, as the professor suggested, that a theoretical abundance of self esteem would somehow solve all of its problems. Nor would it give China license to ignore the rest of the world's norms, regulations and customs. Just because Chinese soccer players perform badly — and Chinese fans feel badly about it — doesn't mean the team can suddenly change the rules as it sees fit.
To put it bluntly, this "confidence theory" is to certain extent the 2.0 version of the "national conditions theory" that Chinese people used to ascribe to. In the face of questioning we have always liked to argue that there exist "national condition differences" and that other countries, therefore, shouldn't apply their standards to us.
Whether it's national conditions or confidence, this kind of thinking risks falling into the trap of misplacement and relativism and can thus cause confusion.
For example, earlier this year the "Yuling Dog-Eating Festival" set off a debate. Some people turned to the confidence theory, saying that Chinese people ought to have the confidence to eat dog and shouldn't blindly follow Western standards. They shouldn't, in other words, be servile to foreigners.
Why people eat dogs does have a cultural background and when discussing the subject, one should neither exclude the specific social context nor put it in an abstract vacuum. But there are many other concepts and values at stake as well. The difference between dogs and cows, sheep and pigs, and the complex dog-human relation all allow discussion. To say "I'm Chinese so I am free to eat dog" is to oversimplify things.
The current situation in Hong Kong is another example of just how limited China's emphasis on the confidence issue can be. Some people probably would have been happy if I'd answered the journalist's question by saying, "Yes, Hong Kong's problems do have to do with a lack of confidence." But would being more confident help Hongkongese mothers who can no longer find any powdered milk for their babies because it is all swept away by the mainland visitors? Would it ease the problems their children face gaining admission to the island's primary schools, which are being overwhelmed by an influx of newcomers?