What are the challenges that Chinese think tanks face?

28 April 2016
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

For all the talk of a Golden Age of think tanks in China (and for all the support they receive) think tanks (old and new) face a number of challenges. These are similar to those faced by think tanks elsewhere yet with a ‘Chinese’ flavour. At a recent academic conference on think tanks in Asia organised by the German GIGA and Beijing’s Tsinghua University participants outlined a number of challenges at the individual, organisational and system levels that Chinese think tanks will have to address to thrive in the long turn.

These are, as one would expect, closely interconnected.


At the heart of any think tank we find people and their ideas. They are the wha think tanks trade in, after all. Chinese think tanks face a number of challenges related to the nature of their leaders and staff:

  • Numbers: 200 new think tanks (of the estimates are correct) demand large numbers of skilled researchers as well as managers and communicators. In the past, returnees have provided an important part of this necessary workforce but, increasingly, finding new skilled thinktankers is a challenge.
  • Skills: New skills are necessary in both old and new think tanks. Efforts to develop skills have, so far, focused on research excellence. These skills will need to be strengthened constantly but it is also important to incorporate management, fundraising, and communications skills.
  • Personal networks: Chinese think tanks and their main policy informing functions is heavily reliant on personal (and political) networks. This reinforces a particular approach to policy process participation that is not necessarily supportive of the desire for policy to be more “scientific and democratic”. +


People come together to form organisations -think tanks which can organise themselves in a number of ways: formally and informally. In this form they face a number of challenges that need to be addressed:

  • Business models: Reflecting on business models demands a reflection on the entire purpose and set-up of the think tank. In China, business model innovation is limited by the role of the State and the Party but new models are still emerging. According to Xue Lan, at Tsinghua University, the real challenge for think tanks in China is that the operational models and the missions are misaligned particulayl in terms of finance.
  • Professional competences: Chinese think tanks are still very much focused on research. According to Wang Wen, Chongyang Insititute for Financial Studies, while US think tanks’ research staff is no higher than 60% of the total personnel, in China, this is closer to 90% with many being hired only if they have a PhD. This means that researchers are charged with management and communications rather than employing professionals to take charge of these functions.
  • Governance and management: For Xue Lan, the governance of most think tanks with close links to the government needs to be reviewed. It needs to allow for greater flexibility.
  • Communication: Think tanks in China face the clear challenge of having to ‘democratise’ policymaking and policy advice by engaging with wider audiences. They need to invest in communications if they wish to achieve this. They will also have to address increasing competition from new sources of advice from within and from outside the State and Party systems -even from abroad.
  • Funding: Although China is far ahead that other countries in supporting think tanks, funding is by all accounts insufficient. But more importantly, though is the nature of the funding received and the manner in which it is given to think tanks. Arguably, funding in think tank communities like the US and the UK is harder to come by (for the vast majority of think tanks). But the think tank community has internalised this and business models have evolved to face this challenge head on (it is not strange to find think tanks drawing funds from 100s of sources to deliver their missions).
  • Independence: Xufeng Zhu, one of the co-organisers of the conference and one of China’s leading think tank scholars, led the discussion on think tank independence. In China this is a particularly difficult issue due to the dominant role that the State and the Party play in the formation and support for think tanks. They are also think tanks main clients or audiences, thus reinforcing the need to find business models that protect think tanks’ independence. However, the nature of independence called for is rather nuanced and is more akin to intellectual autonomy (to choose the agenda, research methods, approaches, and to lead the debate).
  • Internationalisation (of the think tanks and of their ideas): Finally, a point that was raised at the event concerns Chinese think tanks capacity to play a role outside of the country. This related to both enhancing their capacity to draw expertise from around the world and help to influence the global discourse on China.

The system

People and think tanks do not exist in isolation. Consequently, they face channels from their broader environment. Context matters but how?

  • Location (geographical and political): According to Xin Hua, as think tanks find themselves farther from the centre their access to resources is significantly reduced. This geographical disadvantaged is mirrored by the effects of political location. Think Tanks within or affiliated to the State and the Party having more access to key decision making opportunities than those affiliated to universities or independent think tanks.
  • Demand driven and demand from new actors: Think tanks in China have traditionally responded to demand from policymakers. But their audience is growing and diversifying. New actors emerge at different levels and demand for their research and advice now comes from non-public camps: the media, corporations, international actors, and the general public.
  • From patron-client (too much focus on in-house advice) to…: This puts into question their historical positioning in Chinese politics. The call for more think tanks created a space for thinktankers to innovate to find the most effective ways to deliver meet the challenge. This has in turn introduced a certain degree of disorder to the system; disorder than inevitably challenges the traditional patron-client relationships that have conditioned think tank evolution in the past. But funding new relationships between think tanks and the State may be easier said that done.
  • The economy: Politics appear to be both a force of change as well as a changing force. It is affecting the rise of think tanks and it is changing as they emerge. But economics, and particularly microeconomics, are impossible to avoid. In comparing the challenges that think tanks in China and Singapore face, Yang Mu, South China University of Technology, suggested that housing costs were negatively affecting the capacity of think tanks to attract the best talent.
  • Career paths: Finally, people’s choices to join and work in think tanks are affected by their prospective career paths. US and UK based think tanks may be able to convince young talent to join them for relatively low salaries in part because they offer attractive career prospects -think tanks are stepping stones into politics or the private sector. But in China this revolving door is not yet developed and prospective thinktankers are less inclined to sacrifice salary to work at a think tank.

This list of factors is not complete nor is it unique to China. But it suggests that even political will, funding, and strong starting point cannot guarantee success. Addressing these challenges (at all levels) will be fundamental in the development of a thriving and sustainable think tank community in China.