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.
Posts tagged ‘China’
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.
Ajoy Datta’s recent blog post asks if developing country think tanks may ever be able to escape their US heritage. He provides some very interesting insights into the research being undertaken by RAPID on think tanks (that I kick started while I was working there) now being led by him. As my comment to his post suggests, I think that the real story coming out of this research is that think tank studies and support interventions should not attempt to remove politics from the equation. The work done by RAPID clearly shows this, and Ajoy presents an excellent case for and many examples to support it.
However, this post (but mostly the post’s title) got me thinking about something that we have been discussing -and that has been at the core of some of the comments that my blog on think tank definitions received.
This line of argument is partly driven by an underlying narrative in the international development community (and that like everything has some aspects of truth): that the North wants to impose its ideas on the South -and force it to accept them even when they may not be relevant. In other words, that context matters so much that everything is relative and everywhere is unique.
But, is research on and the experience of think tanks from developed countries so irrelevant to the study and practice of think tanks elsewhere? This is the line we had been following at ODI -and that I have tentatively put forward in some posts in this blog. In fact a significant part of my critique of James McGann’s index is based on this irrelevance.
I am not so sure any more. For example, German and US policy environments are not the same -they are not even similar- and as a consequence think tanks in both countries are therefore quite different -and so is the think tank community. However, Josef Braml’s work provides an excellent example of how these differences can be used to unearth a great deal of detail on how different contexts have affected the development of different think tank communities and think tanks. He uses the same set of criteria to describe how think tanks in the US and Germany have developed different funding structures, are focused on different audiences, show a different balance between research, consulting and advocacy, have different affiliation arrangements, perceive risk in entirely different ways, their staff follow different career paths, etc. These differences do not make the comparison less interesting and useful; rather they provide a great deal of space for a richer discussion of the nature of think tanks in Germany.
Not only that, it also shows how lessons from the US where the think tank community is more developed have been identified and adapted to the German context.
Think tanks in the US and in Germany (and elsewhere in many developed nations) -and their funders- have in fact (and whether we like it or not) influenced the formation of think tanks in developing countries: in Chile the think tanks that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s were heavily influenced by the support of US and European Foundations and close ties to ‘Northern’ think tanks. In China, independent private think tanks led by international players such as Justin Lin have clear origins in the West. In African, the Ghana based African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) is in fact registered in the US -and by all assessments it has nothing to envy its US counterparts in organisational structure and capacity.
Many think tanks have boards made up of academics and think tankers from developed countries. Have a look at Grupo FARO’s board, for example: it includes Merilee Grindle from Harvard and Andres Mejia from IDS. CEPA’s advisors are equally international –most educated abroad. As advisors to the think tanks they would naturally provide the management with ideas based on their own organisational experiences and it would be up to the think tanks’ directors and senior management to adapt this advice to the local context. (And having provided FARO with some advice I can say that I have seen that process take place –ask, think about the advice, interpret, adapt, prioritise, implement, etc.)
The foundation of think tanks in developing countries is also likely to have been driven by policy entrepreneurs attempting to emulate think tanks in the US and in Europe -inspired and encouraged by their work. In China, the role of ‘returnees’ is critical to the formation of new think tanks –and, according to Cheng Li’s assessment, the Chinese government is actively seeking the development of a US-style revolving door type of think tank. Some think tanks even have foreign leaders.
Even in RAPID we studied think tanks from developed countries like Japan alongside developing countries like Indonesia.
As soon as the Think Tank Initiative announced its winners I (and I am sure others working in developed country think tanks) received a great deal of emails and calls from think tanks in Latin America and Africa asking about visits to ODI and other UK based organisations. And a few have asked me for more specific advice and to share ODI’s experience in adopting a number of internal systems and strategies. In 2009, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) organised a visit to the UK to meet and talk to researchers, think tanks and policymakers. And other UK based think tanks like IPPR are now working with and mentoring African based think tanks.
So FARO, VASS and others must think that the lessons learned by ODI, IDS, IPPR, Brookings, etc. are relevant to them because otherwise they would not bother visiting them. The suggestion that they are irrelevant would be akin to suggesting that a doctor trained in Canada had nothing to teach doctors elsewhere; that an engineer from the UK or Japan could not build a bridge in Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. Anatomy and the laws of physics are the same in the north and the south. Practicing medicine and engineering may be different -but never so different that peers would find it impossible to understand each other.
Now having said that, I also believe that lessons learned in Latin America for instance may be more immediately relevant to African think tanks, and that think tank directors from Eastern Europe and East and South East Asia may find that they have quite a lot more in common that they initially thought. So this is not a defense of the ‘North’. In fact, southern doctors probably have a lot to teach their technology dependent colleagues of the north.
The problem is not with where the advice comes from but rather with who gives and receives it.
Advice and lessons are there to be considered, not imposed or copied without a thought. Even good advice requires an intelligent and critical audience to make good use of it: those asking for it are expected to decide how to use it. My colleagues at RAPID and CIPPEC, with whom we have worked in delivering support to think tanks across the world, would agree with me in that their favourite advisory projects are the ones where their recommendations have been challenged and they have been forced redo their workshops or rush back to the hotel to consult via skype with the rest of the team and search of answers to really good questions.
Our research and this blog can only provide what I hope is accurate and useful information, measured advice and encourage a critical and insightful deliberation of options and ways forward.
So I think that, properly used, the literature on and experience of think tanks in the US are relevant -and they are more so because the literature on think tanks elsewhere is limited.
As think tank researchers we should be focusing on translating good lessons into good practice, but certainly not dismissing them ex-ante because they come from ‘the North’ -wherever that place may be.
What we are doing is (I hate this phrase, but cannot think of any other at this time of night) throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We disagree with the definition of think tanks coming from the US because it tends to exclude a great number of other organisations -university research centres, government research bodies, etc.- that fulfil the same functions in other contexts where the conditions (formal and informal) that have promoted the formation of US-style think tanks do not exist. But this should not prevent us from drawing inspiration and lessons from a rich think tank tradition and an equally rich think tank literature.
This is a very interesting paper by Cheng Li on the trends of think tanks in China -with particular emphasis on the roles being played by influential returnees such as Justin Lin.
The paper also highlight the new roles played by policymakers, entrepreneurs and intellectuals in these new organisations (such as the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, the Chinese Economists 50 Forum, and the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University):
The most notable is that three distinct groups of elites—current or retired government officials, business leaders, and public intellectuals—have become increasingly active in promoting their personal influence, institutional interests, and policy initiatives through these semi- governmental organizations. In present-day China, think tanks have become not only an important venue for retired government officials to pursue a new phase in their careers, but also a crucial institutional meeting ground where officials, entrepreneurs, and scholars can interact.
The paper addresses how the relationship between the state and think tanks is changing. Traditionally think tanks were given spaces (or acquired space) as a result of the patronage of powerful officials -or the interest of Premiers and Party Chairmen. Today, however, think tanks are fast becoming a place to reflect on a long public career or plan a future one -adopting the US style revolving door think tank model. The relation to power is therefore more plural, open and even critical (within acceptable boundaries).
But what is most interesting to me is the concerted effort of the Chinese government to promote the formation of think tanks in China -even creating super think tanks.