Think Tanks in China: A Golden Age?

27 April 2016
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

According to many Chinese scholars at an event co-orgnised by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, think tanks in China are enjoying of a Golden Age.

Since President Xi Jinxing called, in 2013, for a new type of think tank catered for China to “promote scientific and democratic decision making […] And strengthening China’s soft power”, the country has seen an exponential increase in think tanks.

By some accounts, more than 200 think tanks have been founded since 2013 (some suggested that up to 300 new think tanks may have been formed in the last 3 years).

200 think tanks do not materialise out of thin air

The question in everyone’s mind was: how is this possible? 200 think tanks in 3 years is a large number -even for China. Many stars would need to line-up for this to happen:

  • To begin with we need 200 leaders. And not just 200 Executive Directors but also senior researchers, communicators, and, in some cases, board members or advisors (depending on the kind of organisation we are talking about).
  • Then we need staff. Researchers mostly (Chinese think tanks are still, by and large, rather academic in nature + )but this begs the question: what where they doing before? Where they already working in an academic research centre that re-labeled as a think tank? Did they return from abroad to join or set up a think tank?
  • Then we need money. Luckily, the call was accompanied by funds to encourage the formation.

These inputs are crucial but do not explain the sudden boom in think tank formation.

  • In China, we need to consider that the size and complexity of the State offers many opportunities for influence and therefore there are several niches in which think tanks can emerge. Think tanks exist at the central, provincial and below-provincial levels. While the support provided to think tanks varies (in fact, according to Xin Hua, Shanghai International Studies University, one finds an exponential decrease in access to information and resources as we go from the centre to the periphery) there are think tanks at all levels.
  • Different models are possible. Although think tanks in China tend to be seen with a rather narrow lens (although this is rapidly changing as more and more research on think tanks is produced) there are still many official models for new think tanks to adopt. On the basis of the various presentations at the event, we can consider (at each level):
    1. In-house research organs of the Party and the Government: e.g. the Development Research Center of the State Council (DRC)
    2. Specialised policy research institutes, which could be described as public, not-for-profit organisations: e.g. the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS)
    3. The system of Party Schools: e.g. China National School of Administration
    4. The system of Academy of Social Sciences (and natural sciences): e.g. the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)
    5. Research institutes affiliated to universities: e.g. the various centres in Tsinghua University
    6. Independent/private think tanks: e.g. the Horizon Research Consultancy Group or the Charhar Society
    7. Personalised or ego-think tanks linked to political aspirations: e.g. in Hong Kong
  • In China, too, as in other single party states, the political support for the policy matters, too. When the government says it wants something and, as in this case, throws money at it, then that is enough to make everyone find a way to achieve it. Political support all the way from the top of the system has mobilised Chinese researchers, university authorities, business leaders, party and government officials, philanthropists, and, even foreign think tanks, universities and funders to support the formation of new think tanks in China.
  • Finally, this Golden Age of think tanks in China would not be possible without research on think tanks. Over the last years, too, new research on  think tanks in China and abroad has increased. Last year, the Chinese Evaluation Center for Humanities and Social Sciences published an evaluation of think tanks across the world based on a method developed by them. This effort, to take the initiative in the study and evaluation of think tanks globally reflects the intellectual side of this Golden Age.

Politics, money, people, and ideas

Are these the ingredients for the perfect think tank recipe? Does it matter what the political regime is as long as there is political support for the formation of think tanks? Would Chinese think tanks have developed with out public funding? What would the quality be like had they’d be funded without the right people to staff them? And could we sustain a think tank boom without research about them?