Three new reports from the China Think Tank Index programme

5 February 2020

This note introduces three new reports from the China Think Tank Index (CTTI) programme conceived and managed by the China Think Tank Research and Evaluation Centre (CTTREC) at Nanjing University, led by Professor Li Gang.

These reports offer myriad insights on China’s think tank world and will undoubtedly be extremely valuable to anyone who works them, either directly or indirectly (perhaps, for example, through mutual involvement in China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative). There is, however, more potential use to their content than it might first seem. The large-scale development of China’s think tank community has caused many thoughtful scholars and policy analysts to consider how these new organisations can be more probing, more efficient and more critical in the structuring of think tank operations for both policy development and implementation. The reports offer creative ideas for improvement. Additionally experts outside China may be able to contribute other ideas based on their experience and the information in these reports.

About the programme

The programme carried out its first survey of Chinese Think Tanks in 2016 and has done another each year since. The reports overviewed here employ data from the 2017 and 2018 surveys. The 2019 survey results will be issued later this year.

Importantly, CTTREC has worked with an array of cooperating parties to expand the survey’s coverage annually.  Candidate organisations are asked to complete the survey. The submissions of those that do so are carefully checked for completeness and accuracy — in the sense that responses are in line with the intent of each question. The responses of those who pass this screening are then examined to ensure that the organisation is correctly considered to be a think tank.

Those that pass the quality control hurdles are included in the database of ‘source think tanks’ (STTs) used in the studies overviewed here. The CTTI programme carries out rankings of all STTs each year, for STTs overall and those in various categories. An annual conference is now held on think tank themes at which the highest ranked think tanks in various categories are formally recognised.

The three recent reports are:

2018 Annual Report on the Development of CTTI Source Think Tanks

For those new to the CTTI programme, it makes sense to begin with this report. Important contextual information is presented, beginning with a summary of national government policy guidance and support for development of the ‘think tank industry.’ Signs of the maturing of think tanks’ role in policymaking and their deepening analytics are also presented.

The text then turns to a comprehensive presentation of CTTI and recent updates to its methodology. There is a detailed discussion of the data collected from think tanks, how it is organised for analysis, which factors are used in constructing a think tank’s rating, and the details of how each is actually applied. The whole process is highly transparent.

Discussion is also included on the adjustments made to the screening protocol used in assessing whether organisations that submit applications (including completed questionnaires) meet the standards for inclusion among STTs.

Following this, the results — the rankings — are presented for various think tank groupings, similar to those used in the annual University of Pennsylvania’s Go-To Think Tank Reports.

The closing chapter offers, in my opinion, a set of recommendations for bold and essential changes in two areas: (1) the complex relations among think tanks and government agencies and, often, an entity between the think tank and its government clients, such as university administration in the case of university-based think tanks; and (2) internal think tank governance and resource allocations, e.g. staff between senior researchers and support personnel.

2018 Annual Report on CTTI University Think Tanks and Top 100 University Think Tanks

This report is probably more interesting than you expect. It is not just manipulating the data on university think tanks from the report above. Rather, rankings are done following a protocol better suited to this specific group. It provides an in-depth look at university think tank clusters. The term ‘clusters’ is appropriate because a large share of universities house multiple think tanks.

University think tanks warrant attention because they constitute the majority of all think tanks, accounting for 62 % of the total — 441 of the 706 STTs and 90 % of think tanks added to this group in the past year — and because they finished strongly in the general 2018 ratings.

University think tanks are energetically embracing greater roles for themselves in the policy process and the report makes an argument as to why they are well-positioned to do so. One factor is that they have been encouraged by generous government support from relevant ministries since 2015.

The report makes a convincing argument for shifting away from the protocol used in the 2017 and 2018 Annual Reports. It’s worth noting at the outset that CTTI’s motivation is to identify a cohort of very strong university-based think tanks whose practices can serve as models for others. The text hastens to warn against thoughtless imitation and the need to tailor practices observed to specific university settings.

In a nutshell, the protocol changes involve two factors. First, greater weight is given to accomplishments (impacts) and less to resources available to each institute — large university faculties can be associated with a think tank but with few members actually seriously involved, which makes body-counts and related data misleading. Second, scores rely on expert opinion on performance in addition to the data available from each participant think tank and elsewhere (expert opinion is not part of the general protocol).

2017 Report on the Best Practice Awards for CTTI Think Tanks

This report is the second industry-wide report in the trio. It differs from the other two in that non-STTs were also eligible to be nominated for awards.

The report opens with a helpful discussion on what is meant by ‘best practices’ generally.  It then shifts to what best practice may mean among think tanks. Various examples are noted, including On Think Tank’s Best Practice Series. An extended definition is then provided.

The design team decided that awards in three areas were appropriate: research reports, events, and management improvements.

In response to a public call for nominations, think tanks nominated themselves or others for the awards in the first two areas. In the third area, nominations were from relevant department leaders at think tanks directly under the Central Government.

The rest of the report begins with a detailed presentation of the awards’ nomination and selection processes. This is followed by a listing of the award-winning institutions. While there is only one top-prize winner per category, there are multiple ‘first-place’ and ‘second-place’ winners.

The final section, save a brief conclusions statement, provides succinct summaries for individual award-winning reports, events, or management improvements. Interestingly, the awards for top honours are distributed at an annual event which has evolved into a vibrant networking opportunity for the think tank community.

Dr. Struyk’s work with Chinese think tanks and the China Think Tank Research and Evaluation Center dates to 2016, the year his Improving Think Management was published in Mandarin.