Chinese think tanks are more intellectually independent than you think

15 November 2012
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

Most people I talk to about think tanks in China seem rather doubtful of the possibly of there being any ‘real’ think tanks there. How could they if they are all controlled by the Party, they say. My usual answer to that type of accusation is that all think tanks are controlled by someone. The claim by many to be independent is at best partially true. The parties they are affiliated to, their funders, their ideologies, etc. all have a claim to defining the think tanks’ identity. Even endowed think tanks have to abide by the conditions of their endowment.

But the point is taken. The degree of public policy debate one would expect in China is certainly lower (much lower) than what we would expect in Europe or Latin America. But the suggestion that there is no debate at all is definitely an exaggeration. And it is more likely to be because we have been looking in the wrong places.

In fact, there is a great deal more debate in China than one would expect and this article is an interesting example of it: Questioning attitude gives think tanks valuable answers. I would suggest that a great deal mode than what there is more politically open societies. Furthermore, intellectual independence is possible and there are even many think tanks that operate outside the party and the state. But what is even more interesting is that think tanks in China appear to be genuinely valued and appreciated by the state; something that not many so-called democracies can claim.

A mixed landscape

The first thing we should clarify is that there are different types of think tanks in China: there are State or government think tanks (under the State Council or under individual ministries), Party think tanks, and private think tanks. The private think tanks are the most interesting ones but they roles cannot be understood without studying the other two.

State think tanks represent a model of policymaking that is also present in Vietnam and Germany (for example). In this model, the State recognises that policy and research are not necessarily two separate affairs. Instead, they need and support each other. Each ministry then has at least one research centre that feeds it with data, analysis, and policy ideas. Interestingly, they do not enjoy a monopoly. Not only is it possible that they will be competing with other research centres affiliated to the ministry but that think tanks of other ministries will, via the cabinet (I am using general terms for these roles -ministries, cabinets, etc.- in the hope that they will sound familiar in other contexts). In other words, a minister will see or be able to draw from recommendations put forward by both its ministry’s own think tanks as well as the think tanks of other ministries.

Besides the State think tanks, the Party has think tanks of its own (the most well-known is the Chinese Academy of Social Science). But CASS itself is made up of several other think tanks:

CASS is now made up of 31 research institutes and more than 50 research centers, which carry out research activities covering about 260 sub-disciplines of different grades, among them 131 are key ones.

Party think tanks of course play a different role that State think tanks as they are there mostly to inform the Party and the political leadership. The President of CASS is a member of the Party and has a place in the cabinet. Imagine a similar situation in any other country: sitting next to the minister of economics or the minister of health, the minister of research. This two-tier official model then brings research, policies and politics together.

But these think tanks do not have a monopoly on policy or politics, either. They compete with another set of organisations what could fall under the category of private think tanks. Here I am going to take some liberties and re-interpret the definitions of think tanks that I tend to work with. Private think tanks are private in the sense that they are not official but they may be part of or linked to the State or Party think tank system.

To begin with all of these organisations need a sponsor. This sponsor, a current or former policymaker or politician, acts as a patron of the think tank. In return, these patrons get a ‘second opinion’ to the official one they get from the State or Party think tanks. And this second opinion, in a system in which knowledge is power (sorry for the cliché), is paramount.

Most of these private think tanks are rather small. Some are led by returnees from the US or Europe while others appear to be spin-offs from economic analysis consultancies. One good example of the latter is UNIRULE which has remained relevant for almost two decades. A quick look at UNIRULE’s website would confirm that this is a centre that does not necessarily toe any official line. Its research and the manner in which it communicates its ideas reminds me of the opportunities that many opposition think tanks faced in Chile in the 1970s and 80s. Although the Pinochet regime was not keen on political opposition it was less concerned about technocratic opposition. In other words think tanks and researchers were rather free to challenge the government on the evidence just not on the value. Well, something similar may be happening here.

But these private think tanks come in other shapes, too. Patrons are not just interested in the support from organisations and also look for ideas from individual researchers and loose networks of researchers. According to Xufeng Zhu the State and Party think tanks are not homogenous bodies. Within these sometimes vast organisations there are multiple centres and researchers with many different interests and views. Many researchers in State and Party think tanks publish in international journals and media; and their views in these publications are not always the ‘official’ views. More or less free to develop a parallel private line of work some researchers, whether on their own or as part of what we could call technocratic or intellectual networks (to borrow a term coined by Martín Tanaka, Sofía Vera and Rodrigo Barrenechea for their study of think tanks and political parties in Peru), can be said to constitute private think tanks for their patrons.

Far more debate that one would expect

When we think of political debate we tend to equate it with public debate. We assume that its absence from the public space must mean that there is none in the private corridors of power. And this leads some, specially those who advocate for evidence based policymaking (and even some who now use ‘informed’), to argue that the policies are not based (or informed) by evidence. This is of course not necessarily true. As these cases from Africa show it is more likely that a decision will have considered different arguments (each with their evidence -some stronger and more reliable than other).

In China, debate takes place within the think tanks, in the spaces that the think tanks and the policymaking bodies share, and in the political space of cabinet meetings, the State Council, and the Party. This is driven by similar forces than those that drive British parties and their members to demand ideas from think tanks. The constant ‘in-fighting’ in Westminster demands that politicians always look for an ‘edge’ or an idea to push forward while in opposition or in government. The main difference between the two systems, I think, is that in Britain this is done live while in China it remains private. We only know what happens because of the effect it has on other players in the system. A bit like looking for black holes in far away galaxies: even though we cannot see them, we know they are there because of the effect they have on other stars and planets.

To me this means that we need to be more careful about how to judge other political and policymaking systems and the roles that research and researchers play in them. In a couple of weeks in China I enjoyed possibly more political and policy debate than from years of traveling to Africa or a decade in the international development industry in the UK. Publishing papers and reports should not be confused with debate. Debate happens when different arguments meet and challenge each other.

So it appears that the three-tier think tank system, the nature and roles of policymaking and political actors, and the patrons’ and the researchers’ own motivations and roles within these produce a rather more interesting and potentially intellectually independent think tank community in China than anywhere else.