Are think tanks in Asia unique?

5 May 2016
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

Two weeks ago, the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Tsinghua University convened a workshop in Beijing that was designed to gather contemporary research on the development of think tanks across Asia. Asia is home to many vibrant and expanding think tank communities, a fact that is being increasingly acknowledged in global efforts to survey and rank think tanks across the globe.

Different origins, common destiny?

The roots and characteristics of these communities, however, diverge substantially from the Western experience. Whereas think tanks in Western societies are most readily identified as civil society actors that owe their existence to private philanthropy, the lobbying needs of interest groups or activists’ pursuit of social causes, many think tank sectors in Asia still bear the imprint of the developmental state or vast, politically-connected industrial conglomerates.+

At the same time, it is crucial to heed not just the clear divergence between stereotypical “Western“ and “Eastern“ models, but also to take account of the variety of different experiences within Asia itself. Since Asia is home to six of the world’s ten largest countries by population and three of its largest economies (a number that is very likely to rise further), it is long past due to consider these cases from a within-regional comparative perspective rather than just treating them as isolated counterpoints to the Western experience.

In order to accomplish this task, we gathered specialists from (or working on) China, Japan, India, Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam, with the aim of exchanging perspectives on individual countries and encouraging future cooperation on comparative research.

New-type think tanks

Since the workshop was held in Beijing and featured many local experts, one of its focal points were developments in China’s think tank sector, which we discussed in an extended roundtable session.

Recently, the Chinese government rolled out a major new initiative to build “new-type think tanks with Chinese characteristics“, which merits special attention given Beijing’s proven ability to mobilize vast resources and effect rapid changes that are often felt throughout the world. Here, Chinese think tankers and other intellectuals have taken heart in the government’s acknowledgement of the importance of think tanks in policymaking, and the initiative has given rise to a plethora of research programs dedicated to evaluating their performance, providing suggestions on how to improve administrative efficiency and improve information dissemination, bringing university scholars into the fold, and raising their profile on the global stage.

At the same time, Chinese scholars never tire to point out the myriad challenges facing the country’s policy research sector, including a lack of consistent quality control, an uneven playing field between institutes, the lack of professional support staff, and the often byzantine bureaucratic structures separating would-be policy advisers from decision makers. Expectations that building “a new type“ of think tank would also open the door to greater independence and civil society participation have, at best, been only partially fulfilled, and recent political developments clearly indicate the government’s desire to keep these crucial intellectual resources under state control and tightly manage policy debates which cut undercut its legitimacy. This fundamental tension between mission, ability and agency has itself become a topic of intense debate within China, and probably can’t be resolved unless the political winds shift back towards pragmatism.

However, as important as China is, the story of its “think tank fever“ +is ultimately just one among many diverse experiences in Asia. Here, our workshop produced a unique set of perspectives through both individual case studies and early-stage comparative research.

A common theme that emerged from many contributions is the shadow cast by history, or in more technical terms, the importance of path dependency. Despite rapid changes in the political and economic systems of many Asian countries, think tanks are still marked by initial conditions at the time of their founding, as well as their embeddedness in social and cultural structures that are much more resistant to change.

In Vietnam as well as in China, the earlier wholesale adoption of the Soviet research system continues to shape think tank sectors even after the demise of the original role model and decades of reform. Both are marked by a plethora of institutes attached to different state agencies which are often jockeying for influence and reluctant to share information, a corresponding dearth of private initiatives, and high centralization exemplified by their vast, high-level academies of science.

In Indonesia, the legacy of the Suharto era continues to plague university research and education, ultimately leading to a lack of reliable project funding and well-trained personnel for policy research purposes. Japan, on the other hand, can draw on much greater resources, but the strength of its archetypical “developmental state“ and the associated bureaucracy continues to crowd out think tanks. And, with the apparent restoration of the Liberal Democratic Party’s dominant position and thus reliable access to the state bureaucracy, incentives to outsource policy research have decreased further.

Comparative research rather than convergence

Given this extraordinary sensitivity to starting conditions, a convergence of Asia’s think tank sectors on the Western model seems highly unlikely. Nor is it clear that this model would be a good fit for the particular policymaking needs of such a diverse set of countries, even if further political and economic liberalization were to occur. This again underscores the value of studying these cases in their own right, and the need to do so without preconceptions derived from very different conditions, like those found in the United States. Comparative research on these and other cases can help us build a better understanding of the drivers and inhibitors in think tank development, and how specific sets of factors interact to produce outcomes. This would not only serve a purely academic interest, but could also inform the practical work of efforts like the Think Tank Initiative, which seek to boost the quality and diversity of policy research in developing countries.