Building Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics: Current Debates and Changing Trends
Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 24
China has the second largest number of think tanks in the world (426), behind only the United States (1,826).  On October 27, at the sixth meeting of the Leading Group for Overall Reform, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a new type of think tank. President Xi said think tanks should have “Chinese characteristics,” promote China’s modernization and governing system as well as strengthen China’s soft power (Xinhua, October 27). When compared with their U.S. counterparts, Chinese think tanks tend to be considered less influential on a global scale and yet, the number of think tanks is growing along with their scope of research. Despite the general tendency in the West to perceive them as strongly repressed by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ideological control, Chinese analysts and Party officials have discussed the path forward over the past few months. The expansion of think tanks’ intellectual power in China depends on the Chinese leadership’s willingness to allow the development of think tanks’ credibility to speak for a country rapidly emerging as a major player in world affairs. Yet, Xi’s call for reform does not appear to empower think tanks to provide objective policy recommendations detached from the Party.
Although President Xi’s attention toward think tanks was only recently covered by the Western media, the call for think tanks with Chinese characteristics in China dates back as far as the new Chinese leadership taking office in 2012 (South China Morning Post, November 3). To be more precise, it was during the Annual Central Economic Conference in December 2012 that Xi, at that time already General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee, officially urged new guidelines for Chinese think tanks, specifically intended to provide policy makers with valuable policy advice (Beijing Review, May 29).
Think tanks in China are policy research organizations that can vary in terms of organizational structure, research field and affiliation status. Think tanks are generally categorized as official policy research institutes, such as the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB); government-sponsored think tanks, such as the Chinese Institute of International Studies (CIIS); and civilian organizations, like the Unirule Institute of Economics (UIE).  However, a rather different Chinese classification appeared recently, the Blue Book of Think Tanks. Published by Red Flag Press, a social science publishing house based in Beijing that also publishes Qiushi, the CCP Central Committee’s journal, the list should be considered very authoritative and nearly official. It distinguished first and foremost between official think tanks at the central level and official think tanks at the provincial level; and secondly between semi-official think tanks, specifically research organizations or civilian organizations, such as the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), and university-based research organizations, such as the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University (CISS). 
More generally, think tanks in China provide information, analysis and policy recommendations to the government and Party leadership through conferences, informal discussions as well as writing official reports and policy briefs. They also function as a “transmission belt” between the state and society, providing information and policy analysis to the Chinese media. At present, they represent an important microcosm of, and laboratory for, policy making in China. In this light, the purpose of this article is to highlight ongoing discussions and reactions in China following the sudden attention paid by the new leadership to Chinese think tanks.
Enhancing the Academic Debate
Following President Xi’s official statement, among the first to engage with the theme were university-based academics, who began to publicly discuss the importance of the growing think tanks industry in China. Chinese academics believe think tanks to be essential in “discarding old ideas and bringing forth new ones”—as exemplified by the Chinese term chuangxin.  To a certain extent, Chinese scholars tend to see the need to build think tanks with Chinese characteristics more as a way to modernize the Chinese academic environment, rather than a willingness by the Party to control research organizations. The debate, although mainly limited to scholars working within academia and think tanks, was free enough to be followed through Chinese print and online media.
The discussion ranged from those who, more in line with the Party’s official statements, believe think tanks are an important element in pursuing China’s national rejuvenation, to those not excluding “Western characteristics” a priori.  Professor Zhu Guanlei of Nankai University, stressed that university-based think tanks could have a role in strengthening Chinese institutional mechanisms’ shortcomings: “With universities exerting political consultancy, serving the community but without neglecting policy research” (Guangming Daily, May 31). Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University believes Chinese think tanks can certainly compete with Western institutes. However, it will be necessary to work on two main fronts: to fill knowledge gaps about China’s conditions and national policies and, at the same time, to eliminate the lack of knowledge that is still persistent in China with regards to world affairs (Guangming Daily, May 31).
More generally, the debate unleashed conflicting opinions on whether think tanks should maintain a certain distance with regard to their Western counterparts and follow their specific path of development, with official and semi-official think tanks in strong support of moving away from the West. The Chinese Academy of Government, the policy research institute administrated directly by the State Council, argued that China’s different conditions and culture mean Chinese think tanks should pursue a different developmental path. Chinese think tanks should learn from Western-based policy research institutes, but they need to maintain their own characteristics. Whereas “U.S. think tanks developed and grew within a bipartisan political system enriched by lobbying and interest groups, in China, it is advisable for think tanks to maintain strong linkages with the government, a characteristic, which is, in fact, much more in line with the Chinese reality” (China Social Science Daily, November 3). Thus, bipartisanship—together with cultural factors—is one of the main distinctions when remodeling China’s think tanks: “due to its different political system, history and culture, any move to transplant the Western model to China will cause its think tanks development to be unsuitable for its national conditions” (Qiushi, November 6). Moreover, differences between Chinese and U.S. think tanks persist with regards to the researchers’ profiles and the institutes’ organizational structure (China Social Sciences Network, July 29).
Nevertheless, the harshest critics of the new plan were Chinese policy analysts, especially when discussing the uneven playing field for think tanks in China. Under the new plan, official think tanks will still maintain strong benefits compared to other institutes: whereas the former directly provide analysis and policy documents to the government, university-affiliated institutes often struggle to reach a concrete balance between student training and policy research (Hongqi Wengao, August 7). In this sense, because university-affiliated or civilian think tanks are not totally excluded from conducting policy work for the CCP, the government’s unequal distribution of financial resources remains one of the main limitations to Chinese think tanks’ ideological innovation and international competitiveness.
Construction Plan for University-Based Research Institutes
Academic circles and university-based research institutes were asked to follow specific guidelines about how to incorporate the new “Chinese characteristics.” In February, the Ministry of Education circulated a document, The New Think Tanks Construction With Chinese Characteristics Promotion Plan, which was sent to each subordinate college at the provincial and district level (Ministry of Education, February 10). According to the document, the main task of think tanks in the future will be to support the government. In particular, research organizations will be established in order to serve the development of the country, focus on China’s urgent needs (exemplified in terms of economic, political and cultural development, ecological civilization, Party-building and foreign affairs); integrate high-quality resources; train talented people; spread research results through different channels of communication (print and online media), reform their administration and renovate their organizational structures (Ministry of Education, February 10). On April 17, CCG hosted the first “Symposium on Think tanks and China’s Development: Transforming China’s Think Tanks.” The conference featured top ranking experts from think tanks in China and abroad. The intent was to share experience on think tank management and to strengthen cooperation among the many participants involved (CCG, April 17). This suggests the Chinese government intends to build think tanks into research organizations that can compete with their Western counterparts.
Promoting China’s Soft Power
University-based research institutes are not the only organizations restructuring; official and semi-official research institutes working in the field of foreign affairs and international relations are expected to play even a far greater role under the new plan. In his call to develop Chinese think tanks, President Xi for the first time made clear how he expects think tanks to promote China’s future soft power. In Xi’s words, think tanks “are an important part of national soft power and of a growing concern, therefore we need to actively investigate think tanks’ Chinese characteristics both with regards to their organizational structure and their management” (People’s Daily Online, October 29). It is difficult to say to what extent this will improve the working mechanisms of Chinese foreign policy or whether such reform will restrict think tanks’ independence for policy recommendations. On the one hand, the reform will innovate the think tank system in China, with the clear intent to establish high-quality policy research organizations and modernize China’s overall governance system, with institutes inevitably opening up to the Western world. On the other hand, the shift toward such a strict research compartmentalization—exemplified by the central government’s efforts to assign research topics and a three-stage system for reviewing research conclusions—could also impact the quality of think tank research, especially in the long-term (DRC, April 22).
The statement should also be framed in terms of China’s growing role in world affairs. Chinese think tanks not only play an essential role in providing policy input and ideas into China’s current decision-making system; indeed, their functions and roles in the future will also play a fundamental role at the global level. Specifically, one of their main tasks when supporting Chinese soft power will be to combine policy recommendations for yin jin lai (coming in) and zou chuqu (going out). These are China’s two great investment streams, which are considered to be two complementary forces for China’s sustainable economic development and global advancement. For instance, CCG recently published a Blue Book Report on Chinese enterprises going abroad (Xinhua, January 14; Reuters, October 29).
Many policy research organizations have already reorganized themselves to provide consulting and other services outside of the traditional scope. This has blurred the line between official and semi-official think tanks and consulting firms, as is the case with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies (IWASS) at the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS). One official at IWASS said, “We are part of a growing market-economy environment, we need to survive and for this reason we currently serve three main markets. We provide policy inputs and advice to ministries and the international department of the ruling Party, but we also advise large business firms with strategic concerns in the need for long-term project investments, and we advise Chinese financial institutions who cover political insurance for big companies abroad” (Author’s interview, Beijing, November 19, 2013).
Think tank funding will likely remain a problem in China, limiting their space for independent policy research, despite a growing number that offer consulting services for additional revenue. Chinese think tanks rely on three main funding sources: financial appropriation, contract research and research sponsorship (Author’s interview, Beijing, November 18, 2013). Whereas the first two are provided directly by the government, the latter allows sources from outside official channels. Thus, beyond government funding, private and international resources have also become essential to their survival. However, details about to what extent Xi Jinping’s recent call could change think tanks’ funding procedures or whether international funding could also be restricted was not really part of the ongoing discussion.
Chinese think tanks have been often underestimated in the West. Their proximity to the government apparatus and its bureaucracy gave many policy research organizations a bad reputation for the quality of their policy recommendations, especially when compared with their Western counterparts (South China Morning Post, November 10). President Xi’s recent call for a new think tank environment in China should be first understood as a willingness to develop research institutes just like the many hundreds of similar organizations that exist worldwide. Think tanks in China must be competitive, modernized and ready to support China’s numerous challenges on a global scale. And yet, think tanks in China are not totally independent, as Xi’s effort appears more like an invitation for policy research organizations to “officially” adhere to the Party line, rather than the possibility for a new intellectual spring to bloom (South China Morning Post, November 17). Heavy Party control risks jeopardizing the credibility of Chinese think tanks, therefore limiting their ability to successfully engage with their Western counterparts. Meanwhile, the Party’s determination to dictate a top-down approach to its modernization risks obscuring their real transformation. China’s research community is increasingly internationalized, increasingly professionalized, and is producing higher quality and diversified research and policy recommendations for a wider range of customers.
- For a full list, see “2013 Global Go To Think Tanks Index & Abridged Report,” 2014, University of Pennsylvania.
- For a detailed discussion about Chinese think tanks’ organizational structure, see: The China Quarterly, Volume 207, 2011.
- “Zhiku lanpinshu. Zhongguo zhiku fazhan baogao” (Blue book of Think Tanks). China Think Tank Development Report), 2012, Red Flag Press.
- Dangdai shijie yu shehui zhuyi (Contemporary World and Socialism), Volume 2, 2012.
- Among Western scholars, think tanks are usually intended as “a distinctive class of organizations that are formally autonomous from states, markets and universities” (Thomas Medvetz, Think-Tanks-as-an-Emergent-Field, 2008, p. 1).