from Asia Unbound

China’s Think-Tank Great Leap Forward

September 28, 2015

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China is experiencing a think-tank great leap forward. Governments, universities, and non-governmental actors have all jumped on the bandwagon of growing and creating think tanks. In responding to the government’s call to build fifty to a hundred high-end think tanks “with Chinese characteristics,” existing think tanks were quick to release reform and rebuilding plans, while new think tanks mushroomed in China. Just this month, at least ten new think tanks were reported to have been launched. In addition to those housed by universities, many are affiliated with government agencies (e.g., China National Tourism Administration) or media groups (e.g., Phoenix media group). As Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University observed, nowadays “each unit is building a think tank, and all universities are building think tanks.” It was reported that even some academic institutions focusing on studying history and archaeology have sought to transform themselves into think tanks.

This think tank fever is driven by President Xi Jinping’s concern that China lacks think tanks with international influence. While China has more than 2,500 so-called “think tanks,” only 426 of them entered the 2013 Global Go To Think Tank Index & Abridged Report, and only six ranked among the top one hundred worldwide. While poor international reputation is believed to have crippled China’s ambitions to project soft power abroad, Chinese think tanks also find themselves increasingly unable to meet the growing demands of policy makers in a rapidly changing domestic and international environment. In their book Global Think Tanks, Wang Huiyao and Miao Lu argued that ineffective think tanks accounted for the high error rate (30 percent) in China’s economic policy making. According to a study published in the journal of Contemporary International Relations, between 2001 and 2014 most of the mainstream forecasts made by Chinese scholars on the war goals, processes and post-war rebuilding regarding U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq have missed reality by quite a large mark.

The absence of internationally reputable and influential think tanks in China can be attributed to the Soviet think tank management system. Imported by China in the 1950s, the system nested the few think tanks in the party-state apparatus. Researchers in these think tanks were thus no different from state employees in other sectors except that they were advising the government on policy matters. Beginning in the 1980s, policy research and discourse analytically moved away from the orthodox ideological dictates in favor of more empirical and neutral analysis. Still, organizationally most think tanks remain an integral part of the nomenklatura system, with their funding and administration controlled by the state. Compared to their non-state counterparts, such government think tanks—through “internal reference reports” and expert consultation—have privileged access to the policy process. But their role is confined to conducting research projects assigned by the state and using the research results to disseminate and substantiate policy initiatives taken by the Chinese government (and occasionally serving informally as a check on the government policy preferences). It is extremely rare for a government think tank to publicly criticize government policy. This not only contributes to credibility problems of China’s think tanks among the general public, but also—as Elizabeth Economy and I noted in a recent piece—narrows the scope of their policy recommendations.

Unlike the government think tanks, university think tanks in China do have more autonomy in research and advocacy, but because most Chinese universities are themselves run by the state, they do not have the flexibility in signing contracts or hiring research personnel. Their traditional emphasis on “pure scholarship” (i.e., scholarship aimed at no practical end) and China’s murky policy process has also undermined the feasibility of their policy proposals, while limiting their channels and opportunities to be heard by decision makers.

Against the backdrop of the state dominance of society, this upward policy influence model means that think tanks in China do not have strong incentives or autonomy to promote policy ideas to the public. As a result, frequency of political leaders’ commentaries on think tank reports (pishi) became almost the most important yardstick to measure think tank performance. In many research institutes, cash and piece rate awards are given to those whose internal references and reports receive written comments from the leaders. In some think tanks, such written comments reportedly can even be counted as publications.

Furthermore, the commanding height of government think tanks has left little space for independent think tanks to grow. Because of the high barriers to entry, many aspirant think tanks have to register as for-profit consulting firms. Today, only 5 percent of the think tanks in China are believed to be civilian run, and none of the top three civilian think tanks listed in the 2014 China Think Tank Report appears to have any full-time resident researchers.

Paradoxically, despite the efforts to promote “new” think tanks, thus far no serious measures have been undertaken to address the underlying institutional problems that prohibit China’s think tanks from operating in an independent and pluralist setting. There are reports that some semi-official think tanks (considered public units or shiye danwei) are even trying to take advantage of the think tank fervor to convert to government think tanks. To compound the sustained think tank dependence on the state, since the second half of 2013 the environment in which think tanks operate in China has been changing in a way that is detrimental to critical and independent thinking. Marxism-Leninism has again been upheld as the orthodox ideology in major think tanks such as Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The same is happening in Chinese universities, where political correctness is becoming a primary concern in academic research. As one Chinese scholar pointed out, current think tank building efforts are unable to improve the quality of policy research; they act more like a political strategy that will “further impose constraints on researchers and intellectuals.” According to Caijing, a first batch of high-end think tanks that have already been designated by the state are to be affiliated with the Office of Social Science Planning of the Ministry of Propaganda.

Meanwhile, the rising anti-intellectualism, nationalism, and populism further undermine the credibility and effectiveness of Chinese think tanks in policy making and international exchange. In 2013, a documentary allegedly produced by a military think tank in China warned—without solid evidence—political and military officials against U.S. ideological infiltration and political subversion. Another example occurred recently when a piece authored by a young blogger with secondary level education was circulated widely on social media “exposing” a fifteen-year long U.S. “Cultural Cold War” strategy against China. In his article, this blogger blamed the United States for distorting Chinese history, even creating China’s food safety problems. Notably, no think tank specialists stood up to rebuke such odd and erroneous accusations.

That said, China does not fall short of think tank scholars with expertise, integrity, and international recognition. Its best think tanks have played a critical and constructive role in China’s economic reform and foreign policy making. As Wang and Miao noted, the biggest crisis of China’s think tanks is the credibility crisis. Rather than focus on injecting more financial resources to the think tank sector and promoting the establishment of new think tanks, the government should aim to eliminate institutional and systemic barriers and foster independence and pluralism in order to incentivize scholars and think tanks to improve the quality of policy research and have their voices treated seriously in international arena. The unbridled proliferation of new think tanks may increase competition and enable the best to survive and thrive.  In the absence of reforming this “of the Party, by the Party, for the Party” institutional structure and ameliorating the political environment, however, it will be similar to the spread of backyard steel furnaces during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), squandering a huge amount of resources while only producing piles of scrap metal.

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