Study tours had fallen out of fashion. The Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia may be leading their revival. A recent visit by 16 Indonesian think tanks to China provides an interesting insight into Chinese think tanks and on the lessons that may be learned through a study tour.
Posts tagged ‘China’
Two think tank rankings have been published recently: one for Chinese think tanks and one for US think tanks. Both have been developed by think tanks themselves and both have attempted to be as context specific and objective as possible. While they use different methods they offer an excellent opportunity for comparative research on think tanks.
Think tanks find it difficult to fundraise in developing countries. Outside of the usual international development agencies, few domestic private funders exist. The new Indian Government offers new arguments in favour of funding think tanks that should be considered by think tanks and their supporters alike. If it is good for India (and China) ...
Chinese think tanks are transforming themselves from 'windows' to 'super highways': from learning about the world to actively trying to influence it. Think tanks in developed and developing countries should take notice.
Chinese think tanks are more intellectually independent than what most people think and this is down to an interesting combination of the types of think tanks, the spaces they share with policymaking and political actors, and the roles key individuals play.
Think tanks offer advice on their specialty subject to the National People's Congress, and they also propose innovative ideas for local governments to implement policies and to apply said policies to other parts of the country if possible. Think tanks in China feel that their increasing involvement signifies that the Communist Party is now taking into account a wider array of opinions and sources as part of their decision making process.
I’ve written about think tanks as ‘windows’ before: Particularly Chinese think tanks. The idea comes from Murray Scot Tanner’s Changing Windows on a Changing China: The Evolving “Think Tank” System and the Case of the Public Security Sector. In it he argues that Chinese think tanks were set up with the explicit purpose of creating ‘windows’ into other political, social, and economic spaces at a time when China was relatively cut-off from the world.
Imagine a Chinese official travelling to Washington to learn about the US political system at the height of the Cold War. It would have been a long trip for nothing, really. But a scholar could meet up with his or her peer in an American university and have a chat about the US and Chinese political systems without much (relatively speaking) trouble. And the trouble was really quite small. Chinese think tank patrons knew that there had to be some information going the ‘other way’ if the ‘windows’ were to serve their purpose.
I have been reminded of this by a recent article: China and U.S. discuss cybersecurity via think tanks, on FierceGovernmentIT. In a way, this takes it beyond Tanner’s window metaphor. Here the think tanks appear to be acting as agents for their governments in international negotiations:
Two establishment national security think tanks–one Chinese, the other American–have been holding what a former Homeland Security Department official says could be described as proxy negotiations on cyber war and cyber espionage.
I find the idea truly interesting. It makes us think about their independence from governments’ agency. I’ve often questioned whether some think tanks in the international development field can be seen as truly independent if they are entirely reliant on contract funding from their governments. In essence, I feel that this makes them their agents: promoting their ideas and policies overseas. But the idea that much more exiting and open discussions between states could take place simply because the interlocutors were not bound by the bureaucracies and formalities of their governments is nonetheless worth considering; and it might be more honest, really.
Another issue that comes to mind is the role that think tanks in developing countries could be fulfilling in helping their own societies to learn about what works and does not work elsewhere. China and Vietnam have several research centres focused on the study of other countries and regions: Europe, the US, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, South Asia, India, etc. (Have a look at the list of centres in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and its Vietnamese equivalent.) This effort to learn about others is, I think, a sign that these countries are taking their development (not in the sense of ‘poverty reduction’ but in the sense of the desire to progress) seriously. And it reflects what the ‘West’ has done for ages. These centres act as windows into the rest of the world, they facilitate learning from others in ways that governments can never really follow, and encourage the development of a clear sense of the place that they inhabit in the world.
Are there many southern research centres studying not their own countries but the developed world? (Any in some countries or regions?) Would the traditional research funders (the DFIDs, IDRCs, Gates, Fords and others) be happy to fund research on European political history? Comparative politics in Europe? Latin American republican history (post independence)? Urbanisation policies of American cities? Japanese industrialisation policy? I think you get the point… I do not think there is a ‘market’ for this. The prevailing idea, it seems, is that none of this matters. It if is not immediately related to urgent policy decisions it is not worth funding. Or that, if it does, then this is knowledge that is probably carried over by researchers from these places when they get involved in ‘development’ research and policy.
This, we know, is not necessarily true. I may be a Peruvian economist but my understanding of Latin American economic history is limited. This is not my specialism. Maybe my professor at university in Peru would be a better candidate for this approach of knowledge transfer. But even then, how could we know what part of the this rich history is relevant for African (and I do not mean Africa as a country), South Asia, etc. economic development? Rather than send a political scientist from Latin America to ‘teach’ North Africans about the region’s long-term democratic struggles, wouldn’t it be better if an Egyptian based Latin American studies centre identified the narratives and lessons that make most sense for them? Maybe they could compare them with the lessons learned by a European Studies centre.
Or, a different approach could be taken and instead of regional or country specific centres thematic ones could be set up. Peru has just announced the formation of a centre to study democracy (its challenge, I think, is to make sure it does not just focus on democracy in Peru or Latin America but set its sights much farther afield -and historically). So what about a Centre for Government in Lusaka that studies not just Zambian or African political systems but also covers the US, Latin American, European, and Asian systems? The same goes for health, education, agriculture, economic policy, etc.
The situation is quite dire, I think. In the past, this absence of research from the south about the north was ‘corrected’ by studying in northern universities. They became windows into the rest of the world. Economists, political scientists, anthropologists, etc. gained degrees in top US or European universities (as well as Russian, Japanese, etc.), returned home and applied some of what they learned. (I must say that I do not buy the usual criticism to this model: that what they learned was not directly applicable to their ‘developing’ contexts and so in the end did more harm than good. If this is the case then I think we must be honest and recognise that the problem lies with the people themselves. It does not take much to know that there are differences and that we has to adapt our knowledge to the context. Not just North to South but also within the North and within the South. This is more a critique on people (laziness, carelessness, etc.) rather than the model. Having said that, I have also argued that it is time that we stop travelling to learn about things on which we could be knowledge leaders.)
Today the model is changing for the worst. At least in the economic and social sciences many young graduates from developing countries are joining the ranks of the development studies ‘professionals’. So the very people who could bring back new ideas as in fact closing the window (door is a better metaphor here) on that opportunity. This is the equivalent of quantum physicists from, say Bolivia, studying about scientific fundings in Peru instead of, say, Denmark or Germany.
So what about some funding to study the rest of the world? We do it in the UK, the US, and the rest of Europe. The Chinese have done it, too. And it seems to have worked.
The rise of the BRICS bloc in the last decade, since its conception as an economic group by Goldman Sachs in 2001 as a counterbalance to G7 countries in the world scene, has seen a growing cooperation between its members (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, as a country added in later years, South Africa), specially on economic and diplomatic grounds, as well as the building of an institutional framework, having already held four summits, the last one in March in New Delhi. There is more trade within the bloc, estimated to reach USD 500 billion in 2015, and the contact between their governments is ever growing. However, BRICS countries have big differences, among them their political and cultural values, the composition of their economic structures and outreach, and, above all, the lack of a common history (with exception of some bilateral relations). Nonetheless, even if links between these countries are questionable, the group has been consolidating for the last five years.
The recent publication of The BRICS Report, on the occasion of the last summit, calls for a harmonisation of economic and diplomatic policies, as well as for forging stronger links between the five countries. In the Sanya summit in 2011, the declaration included the need of research cooperation, and the formation of meeting groups for think tanks. In November 2011, the BRICS Trade & Economic Research Network was launched in Shanghai by five think tanks:
- Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Brazil)
- Eco-Accord (Russia)
- CUTS International (India)
- Shanghai WTO Affairs Consultation Center (China)
- South African Institute of International Affairs (South Africa)
Although all five of them are focused on different subjects in their own countries, in this agreement they have focused on three objectives related to trade and economics:
- Promotion of fair markets,
- Inclusive growth, and
- Sustainable development.
As reported in their strategy paper, their work will consist of publications, policy research and advocacy, as well as highlighting the role of government funding for the growth of their activities. It is clear that trade tariffs and conditions are a key matter for the BRICS countries, as they face protectionist measures from developed countries in sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, where they are actually more competitive. These agreements for a BRICS research group were confirmed in the New Delhi summit this year, where talks about greater public policy research where on the agenda.
There are other efforts that look for a common BRICS policy and commitment to its development inside those countries has been getting ever stronger. In Brazil, the BRICS Policy Center (BPC), founded by PUC-Rio and the City of Rio de Janeiro, is dedicated to BRICS studies by means of analysis, further cooperation between the governments, and cooperation between their societies. The BPC receives visitor researchers and fellows from the other BRICS countries and they have a very active agenda on economic, commercial, political and cultural subjects, publishing research papers, organising conferences, monitoring work, etc.
This is an interesting transnational initiative in which think tanks have been given a key role by their respective governments. Do think tank networks in other regions play similar roles?
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.