Zhou Xin
SCMP Columnist
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

China’s soft technology power is as important as its physical hardware that launches rockets

  • The argument that China is expending too many resources on soft tech overlooks how intertwined it is with hard tech
  • China can boost its soft power by better embracing products and services that rely on soft technology to improve people’s lives

Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on China’s technology giants has fanned the flames of a sidebar discussion about the value of “hard” technologies versus “soft” ones.

A popular notion is that hard technology, such as a powerful new piece of machinery, helps give countries a competitive advantage over rivals, whereas soft technology, such as an app, mainly entertains consumers and could spoil people. From that perspective, some now argue that China is expending too many resources on soft technologies, and they say it’s time for a change of course.

The problem with such an argument is that it overlooks the true power of soft technologies, as well as the symbiotic relationship between hard and soft technologies.

Hard technologies – including those that can launch a massive bomb anywhere in the world, send robotics to the surface of Mars, explore the deepest depths of the sea, or power the most advanced and sophisticated computers – are critically important for a great country like China. These technologies are often symbols of a country’s strength and international prestige.

But it would be wrong to belittle the soft technologies that make daily life easier for hundreds of millions of consumers. Almost all great technologies start out small. The internet is revolutionary in part because it helps address people’s needs. China is one of the biggest winners from the proliferation of internet-enabled services. Mobile payments, while not an advanced form of technology, helped China rapidly transition into a largely cashless society. And online shopping, a form of soft technology, is reshaping China’s consumer habits and urban landscapes.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the ultimate purpose of technology is to serve people’s needs. One reason the former Soviet Union collapsed is that the superpower expended too many resources on hard technologies such as rockets, nuclear weapons and a space station while neglecting its people’s demands to live more comfortably.

For China, its soft power should include services and products generated by soft technologies. Just like a Hollywood movie or a bottle of sugary soda can project the power of the United States, an app that allows consumers to see what they like to see, or a game that allows players to recognise the names of ancient Chinese heroes, could also be platforms of Chinese influence.

The wisdom of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping still applies in discussing the issue: whether it’s soft or hard technology, it can be good as long as it helps mankind.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hard and soft tech should benefit us all