Chinese think tanks: from windows to super highways

23 November 2012
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

Chinese think tanks are often described in the literature as ‘windows’ into other political communities. Any government would find it quite had to openly inquire about other countries’ political systems. But for the Chinese government this is probably even harder. It makes sense: the closer we are the harder it persuade others to open up to us. But scholars in think tanks (or universities) may find it easier to engage with their peers in other countries. It would be easier for a think tank in the United States to invite a thinktanker from China than a government official. The latter would need to seek permission from his/her superiors, be briefed, etc. In fact, for any civil servant anywhere in the world, travel in an official capacity is hard. Open communication in this context is therefore difficult.

But a think tank does not face this problem. And as long as all can accept that to learn from others we must offer some information ourselves then the relationship can be a fruitful one.

In the last couple of years I have been tracking Google Alerts for ‘Think Tank’ and Chinese think tanks appear with increasing frequency in the email alerts. Often it is just a piece of news about something that a think tanks said or an event attended by a think tank. But increasingly the alerts are about think tanks participating in global events, shaping domestic and international policy, and other more proactive roles. The window analogy no longer seems to work.

These three alerts caught my attention over the last couple of weeks:

Global summit showcases new think tank: This is a perfect example of the kind of news I get via Google Alerts (this is old news, by the way): every month, it seems, there is a new Chinese think tank focused on international policy and global affairs. And the attitude, of the spirit of the think tank is best illustrated by this quote:

The CCIEE’s announced goal on its establishment in March of becoming a world-class think tank with clout similar to the Brookings Institution in the United States created a buzz worldwide. Former vice-premier Zeng Peiyan heads the centre and it boasts a panel of vice-directors and advisers that includes some of the country’s top economic and financial policy makers and industry moguls.

What is particularly interesting about this is that this is no longer a think tank to study the world and serve the Chinese State and Party. Instead it is, at least this is its intention, a public good type of actor. A new contender in the global political space. The CCIEE sees itself as a convener of think tanks (as clearly expressed in this account of its second Global Think Tank Summit) and not a mere participant in other think tank’s events and conferences.

Global institutions ‘need to be reshaped’: The second alert refers to a process that should be clear to everyone by now: the Chinese are no longer staying at home. After years of making things for others, China is now making its own stuff and selling it across the world. Many new cars in Latin America are Chinese (and they are no longer the unreliable cars they once were). Chinese businesses are shaping what and how we buy things. They are rapidly controlling the extraction and trade of natural resources. Chinese political affairs are capturing our attention (far more, in my case, than the US elections did). And Chinese tourists are the golden price for any travel agent in the world. Well, it appears that the world into which China is stepping in is not designed to accommodate them:

China foreign policy expert Zhao Minghao believes the current world order is in a “plastic” moment.

The research fellow at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, the Communist Party of China think tank, argues many of today’s international institutions emerged in the aftermath of World War II and now need to be reshaped.

“The current global order is very problematic because it cannot effectively solve the global challenges we are facing.

“So the international system is in a ‘plastic’ moment. We have seen the rise of the Asia-Pacific region and other emerging countries and this has to be reflected in some way (through international institutions).”

More than the content of the article (which is interesting) what I take from it is its tone -and in particular the attitude conveyed in the message and the medium. This is not a researcher in a window-think tank; Zhao Minghao is a highway-think tank researcher. (Or a super highway in his case.) This is not the attitude of a researcher in a think tank whose role is to study the rest of the world and inform the State and the Party. Instead, this is the kind of think tank whose mandate is to influence the rest of the world; to unleash all those decades of knowledge generated by the careful study of the world.

The challenge of thinking big: Gary Cheung profiles a new think tank, the Fung Global Institute, and its founders, Victor Fung Kwok-king and Andrew Sheng, who believes that Hong Kong can be an important hub for ideas: ideas that can change the world:

The non-profit institute, started in August at Cyberport in Pok Fu Lam, aims to produce new thinking and research on some of the biggest problems facing the world and the greatest trends shaping the global economy. Its founders see Hong Kong – with its telecommunications facilities, free flow of information and historic role as an international crossroads – as its natural home.

The new centre emerged out of the coming together of someone with the realisation that a think tank was needed and someone with the vision and means to make it happen. And the approach the think tank is taking is one that merits attention:

Sheng noted that Asia already hosted several influential think tanks, such as the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, but their focus was mainly on international relations and the role of their own countries. ‘We are much more concerned with global issues other than foreign policy and national security that are not Hong Kong’s purview,’ he said.

Lessons for other developing nations

This, I think, is a good lesson for other countries. Think tanks (publicly and privately funded) must be seen as key components of their own aspirations for global influence. Any government joining High Level meetings on the Millennium Development Goals, trade negotiations, United Nations debates, or any other such multilateral or bilateral engagement is doomed to trail behind if all the intelligence it has at hand comes from research done elsewhere by so called experts and international NGOs (often funded by the very same countries and organisations against whose interests they are supposed to be negotiating).

Without a strong, domestically funded, and valued think tank (or more generally research) community, most developing countries are likely to remain as glorified guests in someone else’s party.