Soft power, a term coined and developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University, is a notion that describes the power to attract and co-opt as a means of persuasion.
Nye considers soft power as non-coercive, in which its exercise helps radiate ideologies and influence others in the long run.
Soft power is preferred to hard power as the former can seduce people into embracing beliefs rather than coercing people to accept them under threat.
What exactly is soft power? Take the entertainment industries of South Korea and Japan as examples.
Thanks to their meticulous and serious production, Korean culture has stormed the world with its television dramas and variety shows. Props such as something as insignificant as a document folder would be tailor-made for the shows. The Korean government would also assist film productions by diverting the traffic from the movie sets.
In the manga and its film adaptation of Thermae Romae, Japanese culture and technology are manifested through the adventures of the ancient Roman protagonist in modern Japan, a hero who is so fascinated by all the bath salts and high-tech gears in the bathroom. In the meantime, by projecting fierce Roman warriors, Japan is portrayed as a peaceful nation.
Nye illustrated the concepts of soft powers mainly in his two books, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone (2002), and Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004).
He points out that hard power and soft power are getting tangled up by the world superpowers on the political stage after the Second World War.
In his 2004 publication, Nye reckons that capable individuals are those who can exercise both hard power and soft power well.
From observing Beijing’s recent cultural policy, it is not difficult to see hard power and soft power are not a zero-sum game.
It is often rumored that in mainland films, no law enforcement officers should be featured as bad guys and bad people must be punished under the law at the end of the story; that’s why foreign films are often heavily edited before they are allowed to hit the screen.
But Jean-Jacques Annaud, director of Wolf Totem, a Chinese-language film in 2015, said in an interview that Chinese authorities allowed complete freedom in the creation of the story. Even in controversial scenes depicting the Cultural Revolution or the destruction of grassland ecology, no alternation or deletion were made.
Social commentators remark that this is a sign of progress, an indication that China is exercising its soft power, instead of projecting its hard power.
What is Hong Kong’s soft power then?
Lam Woon-kwong, convenor of the Executive Council, said in an interview about his views on the Umbrella Movement that Hong Kong continues to use soft power in the judiciary, freedom, municipal management and good citizenship.
The peaceful conclusion of the social movement is a confirmation of Hong Kong people’s rationality and pragmatism.
However, in a torn society, how to consolidate Hong Kong’s existing soft power while nourishing and developing the individual soft power of students and youngsters certainly poses a challenge.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 19.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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