How does a think tank policy come about? Lessons from China

19 May 2016
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

In China think tanks are experiencing something of a Golden Age (at least if we consider the number of think tanks founded in the last few years and the support from the Party and the Government for their development). Unlike most other parts of the world, China has a think tank policy:+

President Xi Jinping’s call for more and better think tanks reads:

Building a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics is an important and pressing mission. It should be targeted on promoting scientificand democraticdecision making, promoting modernization of the country’s governing system and ability, as well as strengthening China’s soft power.

But how did it come about? Many in the western think tank world tend to assume that think tanks emerge in democratic and open societies. They would have trouble understanding how they could emerge in single party states. +

The Development of Think Tank Policy In China: From Sidewalk to the Mainstream

This is the title of a paper presented by Xue Lan and Zhu Xufeng, from Tsinghua University, at an Conference on Think Tanks in Asia. In it, they attempt to chart the evolution of the policy tracing it backwards from Xi Jinping’s statement.

They identify factors relating to three “streams” (problem, politics and policy):+


The nature of the problems that China has faced over time have changes. And so has demand for think tanks:

  1. Between 1978-1992: Chinese policy had to deal with problems related to economic policy, scientific policy, and diplomatic policy;
  2. Between 1992-2002:  Demand turned towards addressing problems related to social policy and macro-economic policy in response to crisis in 1997; and
  3. Between 2002-2012: When demand turned towards economic structure transition, domestic social policies, and enhancing soft power in response to the 2008 crisis.

Political stream

In this same periods political forces affected how think tanks were viewed and valued and the spaces in which think tanks were able to work:

  1. Between 1978-1992: Researchers like other policial actors turned their attention to understanding democratic decision making and scientific policy making;
  2. Between 1992-2002: Their focus turned to the central legal system and they became expert fora; and
  3. Between 2002-2012: Their role supported the collective learning system in the political bureau.

Policy stream

But think tanks never quite managed to play the role they play today. The challenges that had to be addressed and the political space awarded to them kept them at bay. A number of policy decisions were made, however, that affected the development of the recent policy:

  1. Introduction of the idea of think tanks by public policy academics. Researchers in China have been studying and discussing think tanks and their role at least since 1995. This research helped to deepen the understanding of think tanks and involved calls for “strengthening the think tank construction”. In a way, then, research on think tanks came before the development of a formal policy; +
  2. Global think tank rankings. In 2008 the highly criticised University of Pensilvania ranking ranked Chinese think tanks rather low. This triggered a discussion on how to improve their development -crucially, too, it led to realise that few knew about Chinese think tanks outside of China. The ranking, after all, says more about think tanks’ visibility than quality.
  3. Understanding of the concept of independence and influence of think tanks. The call for more and better think tanks could not be operationalised without first reflecting on the nature of think tanks in China -and in particular the meaning of independence and influence for Chinese think tanks. This inquiry led to a new self-confidence to explore a pathway to develop the concept of a New Type of Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics; and
  4. Opening of policy window in 2013 by an internal report of the Development Research Centre of the State Council which led Xi Jinping to call for stronger process of consultation and to construct quality think tanks. In fact this report also led to a new approach to assess the influence of think tanks in China.

So all these streams came together in 2013.

Can this be replicated elsewhere?

There are other countries that need more think tanks (or more policy research institutes) urgently. On Think Tanks has frequently argued for funding for think tanks to be directed at new organisations. Can the Chinese experience be replicated? Xue Lan and Zhu Xufeng reflect on the following lessons:

  • First, the policy did not emerge over night. It took a long time to develop and it would not have been possible had all ‘streams’ not come together when they did.
  • Second, a key driver of the demand for think tanks has been the Government’s own demand for greater consultation channels. Think tanks can, after all, offer to filter and amplify the voices of a broader public in an ‘orderly fashion’.
  • Crucially, too, research on think tanks helped to inform the response to the call for new and better think tanks. On Think Tanks has many times called for think tanks funders to attempt to encourage their grantees and their research communities to study think tanks themselves.
  • China found a fertile ground on which to develop these new institutions as a consequence of Chinese scholars coming back from the U.S. and Europe. They brought back ideas, networks and models of think tanks that could be adapted to the Chinese context.
  • The 2008 crisis made the leadership aware of the need for new and better advice. Much like the revolutions in the Soviet Block in the 1950s led to Mao’s decision to set up new foreign policy think tanks to offer him independent advice (ahead of any unexpected event).
  • The global ranking raised awareness of the challenges that Chinese think tanks faced -it triggered a response in many fronts: more think tanks, stronger think tanks, more visible think tanks, new ways of assessing think tanks (domestically). What this suggests, too, is that policy in China was open to international and domestic influences.
  • Finally, the DRC report offered a clear blueprint for action. It offered the State, universities, civil society and individuals a clear sense of “what to do”.

In other words:

  1. Fund research on think tanks and the role of evidence in policy;
  2. Train the right people or send them abroad to learn the right skills;
  3. Recognise the value of policy research for better policymaking;
  4. Don’t be afraid to learn from others -and even compete a bit with them; and
  5. Make your policy clear and offer a way forward for those involved.