What can Indonesian Research Institutes Learn from Chinese Think Tanks?

26 August 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Lisa Noor Humaidah from the Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) in Indonesia with contributions from Putu Eka Andayani from PKMK UGMand Medelina K. Hendytio from CSIS.]

The Knowledge Sector Initiative  is a joint commitment between the governments of Indonesia and Australia that seeks to improve the lives of the Indonesian people through the implementation of public policies that make better use of research, analysis and evidence.

One of KSI’s components is to strengthen 16 selected research organizations through capacity building-type activities. And one of the important dimensions of capacity building is peer learning through study tours to create networks, exchanges, and collaboration with other Indonesian think tanks and with think tanks across the region. These activities will present valuable opportunities for policy research institutes to learn from the experiences of similar organizations in other countries. A study tour could also link Indonesian think tanks with think tanks working on similar issues elsewhere, allowing partners to explore opportunities for research collaboration, and other capacity building development for example to learn about different funding and business models. This type of engagement is also supported by KSI through the On Think Tanks Exchange.

In May 2015 we facilitated a visit to China for the 16 think tanks supported by KSI to examine and learn about successful think tank models and also to explore possibilities for research collaboration and exchanges with think tank working on similar issues.

Why China?

According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Report, China is the second country with the most think tanks in the world, after the USA ,with a total number of 429 organizations.

The rise of think tanks has also drawn great attention domestically in China including serious attention and support provided by the government. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), President Xi Jinping recently made the development of think tanks as a national strategic priority with the construction of new think tanks with “Chinese characteristics” that was followed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which drew a road map to strengthening think tank development to not only improve the quality of government policymaking but also to increase the momentum for deepening comprehensive reform especially in the economic context.

We realise that while China may have a very different political structure and context from Indonesia, there are very promising current developments on think tanks in China that could inspire Indonesian research organizations on similar aspects and dimensions.

Format and approach

Since the participants from the think tanks work on different policy issues, we paired-up the Indonesian think tanks working on similar issues. Prior to the study visit, the participants were also encouraged to initiate contacts with the Chinese organizations that they were most interested in.

As a result, the participants visited Chinese think tanks in accordance with their own interests. In total, they met approximately 21 leading think tanks in China including those in the top 10 most influential think tanks in China according to recent report published by The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), namely Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua UniversityChina and Globalization Institute; and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

What did the participants learn?

The participants uncovered a number of issues during their visit. Of particular importance are lessons on funding sources/models; influence on government policies; and research management.

Funding sources

Chinese think tanks rely on at least two main funding sources:

  1. Government support that include contract research and
  2. Research sponsorship from what they call “outside official channels” including from philanthropists such as donations both from individual contributions and private companies.

Both the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law (SIFL) and the Centre of China and Globalization (CCG) mentioned this consistently. CASS and the Development Research Centre of The State Council (DRC) similarly echoed that their potential funders include other sources especially from private companies. They also emphasized that there is an increase in people’s awareness in contributing through donations to commission research based on their interests. Both SIFL and CCG now have dedicated staff working and running fundraising activities including attracting potential donors to commission research and other activities.

Although both government affiliated think tanks and independent think tanks receive funding support from the government, think tanks in China stated that they manage to remain critical in the feedback and inputs to the government including to the Communist Party of China with the use of social media and other public opinion channels.

Influence on government policies

Some of the influential think tanks that participants visited admitted that they work behind the scenes and are not well-known to the general public. They are very influential in various issues ranging from politics and the economy to international relations and diplomacy. They also employ top experts and researchers and provide policymakers with consultations and advice as will be described further below. Some of them even have strong connections with the most influential and prominent leaders both in the party and the government. As an example on how think tanks have been powerful and influential, the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure Bank by the government was a policy promoted by CASS.

Prof. Shen Guoming from the Shanghai Federation of Social Sciences Societies described that the influence of think tank in China, especially of SASS, is quite powerful when it comes to reforms within the Chinese political system, including the judicial, parliament and the law.

Research management and organizational structure 

Chinese think tanks manage their organizations in different ways in terms of internal structures and in managing the relationship with the government.

In terms of recruitment, we learned that placing high standards in researcher recruitment becomes a common attitude in developing reputable think tanks in China. Some organizations we had meetings with stated that the recruitment of researchers is highly competitive. They look not only for academic excellence but also passion in order to build and sustain the think tank’s credibility and good reputation in providing strategic recommendations to the government.

The China National Health Development Centre (CNDHC), established in 1991 under the Ministry of Health is an example on how think tank research management and organizational structure looks like. They have four research clusters namely: Service System Research; Integrated Research; Financing System Research and Elements of Development Research. Their researches are managed through several work divisions.

One of the divisions is the Division of Health Technology Assessment that has produced approximately 200 studies in 2014 with a total budget spent is RMB 30 million ( USD 4.8 million). Most of their funding comes from the government. Other competitive funding sources for research include those from companies and philanthropists. This division alone has 81 full-time researchers and more than 30 part-time researchers that include scholars from its network of universities that CNDHC works with. It is most interesting to find that researchers career paths are regulated by a national framework.

Another example on how independent think tanks have been running and operating is the Horizon Marketing Research. This organization focuses on surveys and marketing research. They have been managing more than 300 full-time researchers, supported by 23 full-time administrative staff. As 75% of their work is on commercial research they have thousands of part-time staff employed as interviewers/enumerators, too. The rest of their work is independent research including those commissioned by the government. One such research request from the government looks into creating a people satisfaction index. As an independent think tank that relies on commercial funded research, Horizon is an example of a successful think tank that grows with the support from both the government and the private sector.

Participants also had the opportunity to meet some organizations that continue to keep their staff number small and involve research fellows when necessary such as Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law (SIFL) that works on finance and economic, and Beijing Mingde that focuses on labour rights.

Take away lessons

Participants of the study tour expressed a common impression that the Chinese government is paying serious attention to developing think tanks with Chinese characteristic; most organizations we visited emphasized the same notion. They are being driven to set quality standards at a much higher level for work they undertake to become world-class think tanks.

We obtained a very strong sense that the government gives high recognition to think tanks as reflected in the strong role of the state in funding research. We learned that the investment toward new intellectual ideas and public debates on certain topics takes place not only through the provision of state funding but also by enabling public participation and contribution.

They also placed strong emphasis in developing high quality research and researchers by establishing a quality framework. This includes efforts to attract researchers from the Chinese diaspora as well as potential and intelligent young people to be part of a think tank community. Indonesia could draw various valuable lessons from the development of think tanks and research community in China.

As a result of the visit, some interests and possible further collaboration with Chinese think tanks have been generated. Initial discussion was conducted among interested partners following the visit through email exchanges. We hope that this will continue to develop further and create strategic engagement to commission research together between Indonesian research institutes and Chinese think tanks.

This was certainly an eye-opening experience for most participants, especially in terms of applying the high spirit and commitment to research that Chinese think tanks have been built upon, into the development of think tanks in Indonesia.