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China’s Think Tanks – Multifaceted and Multi-Dimensional Policy Actors

By Karthik Nachiappan, Research Associate at the Centre on Asia and Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Seldom do we pass a day without a major cover story on China’s rise and its growing global influence. Almost every aspect of its ascent is dissected and deciphered to no end. One of the key domestic forces within China engaged in this effort are think tanks. Since opening up in 1978, China’s think tanks have found a new lease of life. They are increasingly expected and relied upon to assume and fulfill several important roles – conducting research and policy analysis on salient domestic, regional and global issues, assisting government ministries in policy formulation, informing and advising key governmental officials on key policy challenges, conducting roundtables and dialogues, etc.

To our benefit, the scholarship on China’s think tanks has considerably advanced our knowledge of them, their role and of course, influence. The most recent paper in this regard upholds this trend. Xufeng Zhu’s recent paper ‘Government Advisors or Public Advocates – Roles of Think Tanks from the Perspective of Regional Variations’ not only deepens our understanding of China’s think tank arena but more importantly, does so by introducing other variables into the picture, notably geography via regional knowledge capacity to comprehend the role and influence of think tanks.

By doing so, it robustly maps the context and unpacks it to see how contextual circumstances affect think tank roles and influence. Given the apolitical and anti-contextual nature of much of the think tank literature, Zhu’s effort is laudable and something to seriously reflect and build upon as we grapple with the influx of think tanks in the developing world, understanding what they do and how they can or do gain policy influence. These issues will gain greater significance given the amounts of funds being channeled to bolster the capacity of think tanks across the global south.

At the outset, Zhu introduces the major types of think tanks that exist within China – Semi-official think tanks and Private, non-governmental think tanks. The former largely functions as ‘external’ brains of the government having well ironed administrative linkages to government and government officials, deriving their mandate from their patrons. Non-governmental entities, on the other hand, are principally identified by their lack of such official linkages and their consequent ability to set and execute their own research agenda. They also seek financing from different sources given their non-governmental character.

From here, Zhu deduces that think tanks in China largely play three roles as – Advisors to the government, Academics in research universities and Advocates in the public sphere. Most think tanks simultaneously discharge these responsibilities, as Zhu states, but what determines which hat gains precedence? Context. To further elaborate, Zhu operationalizes the context through two variables – geography and power.

On the first count, Zhu introduces the concept of regional knowledge capacity or the capacity of that region to acquire, absorb and communicate knowledge. In regions where regional knowledge capacity is high or in other words, where ideas gain traction by being communicated, exchanged and absorbed intensively, eventually resulting in policy. Secondly, the administrative linkage matters. Independent of the regional knowledge atmosphere, think tanks gain leverage by exercising their administrative linkage to ply their research and ideas into the policy process. Of importance here is proximity – to the officials in power and structures of power.

Employing this framework, Zhu posits that for semi-official think tanks, administrative linkages matter more than the regional knowledge capacity. As a result, they principally function as ‘advisors’ in the Chinese policy arena but also transmit their research into the public sphere thereby becoming ‘advocates’ and also presenting at universities becoming ‘academics.’ But their dominant identity is that of advisors. On the other hand, for non-governmental think tanks that lack official linkages primarily rely on advancing their research into the public sphere that renders them as ‘advocates’ first. For these advocates, their influence is therefore contingent on the regional knowledge capacity since they hope to gain atmospheric influence on policy, not direct.

Zhu’s approach and analysis is innovative. Instead of blithely accepting that think tanks all over the world are static, monolithic entities whose role and functions are pre-determined, we inductively arrive at a far different and more grounded account of think tanks, what they do and how they operate in idiosyncratic political environments.

Another takeaway from the article is the importance of the context in understanding, analyzing and gauging think tank activity. Context matters. And here Zhu unpacks that through two factors – power relations in the form of administrative linkages to governing ministries and geography manifested through the capacity and uptake of knowledge in different locales.

These two factors, as seen, largely influence how Chinese think tanks function. Geographic variables are gradually gaining salience in explaining variations across growth patterns. As scholars like Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida have argued, the close and intensive enmeshing of ideas, high-skill and labor within a spatial area generate higher grown returns as compared to those that are relatively less well endowed in those respects. Within the study of think tanks, one can perhaps credibly argue that spaces that are deftly entwine ideas and power will be more propitious for think tanks to leave their imprint on public policy.

Finally, Zhu’s approach is advantageous in that it can be faithfully applied across contexts to gauge think tank role and presence. As donors explore different approaches to evaluate whether think tanks they fund are influential or not, it is necessary to employ a more critical toolkit to understand and probe the power structures that determine the scope and content of public policy, and to discern the role that think tanks, who are nested in those structures play.

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