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Chinese think tanks aspire to thrive with independence and internationalization

Leading think tankers in China are strategically positioning themselves for increased autonomy and substantial global footprint in grounded research, policy advisory, and international outreach.

YUZHE HE AND JIA YUXUAN OCT 9

Global Think Tanks (2.0), written by CCG and published by the People’s Publishing House, delves into the mission, challenges, and future development of Chinese think tanks against complexities in the international arena. A book release was hosted by CCG on August 18, 2023, followed by a seminar of leading figures from Chinese think tanks and renowned experts and scholars in globalization research.

The seminar convened over a dozen of China’s foremost intellectual minds within the think tank realm. Despite varying perspectives, they converged on the pressing importance of think tanks taking on a more independent and robust role. In particular, the war in Ukraine, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan question, and the South China Sea, among others, were pinpointed by Shi Yinhong, professor at Renmin University of China, as issues where think tanks must assume a bigger role.

When comparing Chinese think tanks to their U.S. counterparts, Lu Xiang at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) believed that influence and in-depth research are indispensable prerequisites for participation in high-stakes policy deliberations. Think tanks are a necessity for great powers, he said, and indeed, major powers inherently foster the development of think tanks.

Alarmingly, China’s think tank policies have become increasingly paradoxical and incongruous in recent years, cautioned Tu Xinquan, Dean of the China Institute for WTO Studies, University of International Business and Economics. Speaking from his own experiences, Tu elaborated on how complex approval procedures due to security concerns had scared off exchanges between Chinese think tanks with government officials, as well as between Chinese think tanks and their foreign counterparts.

China’s progress in fostering foreign exchanges and cultural interactions has taken a regressive turn, according to Zhu Feng from Nanjing University of China. Finding innovative solutions to overcome these formidable challenges is paramount to prevent further deterioration of the China-U.S. relationship, he said.

Wang Yiwei, President of the Institute of International Affairs and Director of the Center for European Studies, Renmin University of China, also underscored the need to balance independence with government influence, the tension between being more Chinese or more global in perspective, and the question of whether think tanks should focus more on academia or societal impact.

Shi Yinhong, professor of International Relations and Director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China

I wish to discuss the fundamental attributes a think tank should possess, then address the type of think tanks the government or authorities should collaborate with and the kind of talent these institutions should employ. As a preamble, which seems to have been overlooked by many, let’s define “think tank.” At its broadest, any institution producing knowledge can be termed a think tank. However, a stricter definition confines it to non-governmental entities (even if they receive a large number of commissions from the government) that generate knowledge backed by substantial funding aimed at their research output. By this measure, entities like the CIA, the U.S. Department of State, the Department of Defense, or other U.S. research institutions wouldn’t qualify as think tanks. So, no offense, Mr. Lu, but your institution doesn’t truly fit the bill.

Lu Xiang, Expert on U.S. affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS): I don’t think CASS counts as a think tank.

Shi: True. Second, there are three core attributes that a think tank should possess: independence, foresight, and influence.

  1. Independence: It’s paramount for think tanks to maintain integrity by not only speaking the truth but also presenting actionable and thoroughly researched insights. When shaping public opinion or advising on governmental policies, it’s crucial to be forthright and practical.
  2. Foresight: Innovation in a think tank context involves two aspects. One is providing systematic and constructive insights in crucial areas. The other is challenging conventional or questionable views, ensuring that discussions remain fresh and relevant. However, in China’s current political landscape, candid discourse isn’t always encouraged, often leading to silence.
  3. Influence: While many have already stressed its vast and significant reach, influence can be compromised by a variety of factors. These include a lack of independence, inferior research quality, and limited depth or relevance. Additionally, shortcomings in knowledge dissemination and organizational culture can impede a think tank’s reach.

A side note: Tackling sensitive topics in internal research not only tests the independence of the research but also its periodicity and relevance. For instance, debates over China’s stance on the war in Ukraine, the key challenges presented by the Taiwan question, and sustainability of China’s administrative system. Additionally, there’s the dual impact of China’s meteoric rise in strategic economics, the major structural balance issues, and the implications of building on islands and reefs in South China Sea. All these aspects warrant careful consideration.

Furthermore, there are considerations regarding strategic investment images and their risks, both from strategic situations and economic perspectives. There’s also China’s policy towards DPRK and the Korean Peninsula since late March 2021. Not to mention the enduring aggressive stance in the East China Sea, among others.

Finally, the question arises: what type of think tank should the authorities employ, and which talent should such think tanks seek? I won’t go much further, but let me remind you how deeply Chairman Mao, a man of great ambition, admired Cao Cao曹操 [general and warlord, 155-220], among the very few Chinese historical figures who gained his genuine appreciation.

Cao Cao is known for promoting talent above all, emphasizing meritocracy through various edicts. In the spring of 210 AD, he decreed, emphasizing that from ancient times, rulers rejuvenating their countries always sought out talented individuals, regardless of their social status. However, many talented individuals often remain hidden, waiting to be discovered by those in power. If only incorruptible people were considered fit for service, talent like Guan Zhong [philosopher and politician, c. 720–645 BC], Jiang Taigong [general and strategist, fl. 12th century BC – fl. 11th century BC], and Chen Ping [tactician and politician, died c. 179 BC] might never have emerged. The emphasis was on valuing raw talent, even if they had moral shortcomings.

In 214 AD, Cao Cao once again emphasized the principle of valuing talent. Before delving into Cao’s decree, allow me to offer some commentary first. Cao Cao repeatedly declared his desire to employ individuals with exceptional talent who were loyal to him in his endeavors, irrespective of their moral standing or their humble backgrounds. This emphasis became particularly significant given the tumultuous and often brutal context of the era.

Cao’s decree states: “People with integrity might not necessarily be ambitious, and those who are ambitious might not always possess integrity. Did Chen Ping strictly adhere to upright behavior? Was Su Qin [political consultant and philosopher, 380–284 BCE] truly trustworthy? Yet, Chen Ping helped establish the Han dynasty, and Su Qin strengthened the weak state of Yan. From this perspective, just because someone has flaws doesn’t mean they should be discarded. If authorities understand and appreciate this principle, then talented individuals won’t be overlooked, and official positions won’t go unfilled.”

By 217 AD, even though Cao Cao had yet to declare himself emperor, his proclamations continued to stress the primacy of talent in all matters of governance and military strategy. This emphasis culminated in the Wei dynasty, established by his son, Cao Pi, in 220 AD. The third decree states, “Despite their humble or even controversial backgrounds, figures like Yi Zhi [born a slave], Fu Yue [initially a mason], Guan Zhong [who served the rival prince], and others rose to prominence through their capabilities and achieved enduring legacies; despite Wu Qi’s [general and politician, 440–381 BC] flawed moral character, he was a formidable force in the states of Wei and Chu.” The main idea is that genuine talent, regardless of one’s background or moral character, must be recognized and employed for the greater good. That concludes the passage.

Lu Xiang, Expert on U.S. affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)

At the establishment of the CCG Hong Kong Committee on May 10th, I was honored to be present and express my high praise to CCG. I would like to reiterate that praise now. Over the past decade or so, CCG’s contributions to China’s diplomacy and the building of think tanks have been truly unique. Especially for those of us researchers working in the public sector, we have greatly benefited from CCG’s development, as it has provided us with an excellent platform. I see Professor Tu Xinquan nodding, and I believe Professor Tu definitely feels the same way. I want to emphasize that the CCG’s help offered to researchers working in the public sector has been enormous; I reiterate this point.

Second, I wish to commend the particularly apt title of the book “Global Think Tanks 2.0”. It underscores a fundamental concept: think tanks are a necessity for great powers, and indeed, major powers inherently foster the development of think tanks. Observationally, the swift development of American think tanks emerged post-World War II, corresponding with its global leadership stature. In the context of China, the role of think tanks became particularly pronounced following 2010 — the year China ascended to the position of the second-largest economy globally. In 2012, the CASS initiated exchange agreements with several U.S. think tanks. I was fortunate to become perhaps the first officially delegated individual to facilitate exchange programs with U.S. think tanks, working as a visiting scholar to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from 2012 to 2013. This opportunity endowed me with an insider’s view of the operational dynamics of the U.S. think tanks and the intrinsic link between such institutions and the notion of a “major power”. Serving as a facet of American prowess, the existence of these distinguished think tanks instills a sense of pride in individuals as they traverse K Street in Washington D.C.

Third, I would like to share some reflections on the transition from Global Think Tanks 1.0 to 2.0. I haven’t finished reading this book yet; I was flipping through it as others were speaking, pondering what exactly “2.0” encapsulates. I hypothesize that “1.0” fundamentally represents the period from 2010 to 2012, a span when think tanks began emerging in China, gradually proliferating over the past decade, blossoming everywhere, so to speak. After that period, however, many have encountered predicaments. As you can see if you flip to page 300 of the book, the two authors have an offer a rather disheartening characterization of the current state of China’s [non-governmental] think tanks, encapsulated in phrases such as “living hand to mouth”. While think tanks have proliferated, very few have managed to sustain and evolve. Many universities and government institutions have proclaimed the establishment of their own think tanks, only to eagerly transition into platforms, sidestepping the imperative to foster their own research departments. I see also institutions that previously called themselves think tanks transforming into consulting companies, even startups, just to put bread on the table.

This suggests that the development of think tanks must enter the 2.0 phase, which marks a period of pursuing healthy development. The era of 2.0 might present even greater challenges compared to the 1.0 phase. However, I have firm belief in the strength and experience amassed by CCG over 15 years, and it should be able to set an example for others to come. Having participated in CCG’s events over many years, I am not a newcomer to witnessing the potential of CCG in terms of survival and development.

The 2.0 phase denotes a time of healthy development. I estimate that the proliferation of think tanks over the past decade will gradually die down, and their voices will fade.

CCG has already achieved a remarkable level of excellence. Just now, Mr. Li Cheng also mentioned the challenges faced by think tanks in the U.S., affirming the fact that nurturing a think tank is indeed not a simple task. If a think tank in Washington D.C. can secure funding of $20-30 million annually, it is considered substantial. Given China’s current strength, supporting a think tank of this scale through either private or government investment should not pose a considerable challenge. The real question is the presence of capability — whether one think tank can be developed and strengthened with this fund. I believe that CCG possesses this ability.

Lastly, I’d like to touch on a point regarding why China has a proliferation of think tanks. It might be due to a misunderstanding of the term “think tank.” In the U.S., the term “think tank” is not inherently positive. I recall during my time as a visiting scholar in the U.S., my first visit was to Professor Lampton, possibly familiar to many present here, from Johns Hopkins University. He criticized China and then stated, “I’m not one of those people on K Street; I’m not from a think tank. You can trust me.” His implication was that individuals from think tanks spout nonsense, while academics like him speak the truth. Similarly, during my interactions with think tanks, they sometimes dismiss statements from university professors as “academic,” essentially “empty talk,” reflecting a kind of mutual antagonism. So what does the term “think tank” truly means? I think there is room for further discussion when time permits, as the term carries many unique connotations. Particularly, it is not self-proclaimed. In the U.S., where the modern think tanks are said to originate, interestingly, no institution explicitly labels itself a “think tank”; it is often a term used in third person, saying “such institution is a think tank.” It’s quite interesting. Even in the self-description of organizations like the Rand Corporation, they say something along the lines of, “It is generally acknowledged that the term ‘think tank’ was first applied to the RAND Corporation in the 1960s… RAND is strictly nonpartisan, and our focus is on facts and evidence”, implying they are not engaged in baseless discussions like think tanks. So, I believe there’s room for a more comprehensive understanding of what “think tank” truly means.

Especially in the U.S., the biggest challenge of think tanks is independence, where political forces often exert influence behind the scenes. In China, I believe that there aren’t such interest groups in the political system, giving us the capability to further enhance the role of think tanks.

Tu Xinquan, Dean of the China Institute for WTO Studies, University of International Business and Economics

China Institute for WTO Studies, UIBE can also be considered a think tank, an academic one. However, honestly, academic think tanks are not specialized in running a think tank but focus on teaching and research like an educational facility. And unlike non-governmental think tanks who might scramble for funding, it seems academic think tanks like ours face no shortage of money. We don’t face the pressing need to put bread on the table, yet we also don’t have enough funding for extensive research. It is a paradox. It is also the case when it comes to think tank development in China, especially in the past few years — there’s a general sense of things being incongruous and paradoxical, with many policy mismatches, as well as disorientation and inconsistency between actions, slogans, practice, and ideology.

I have similar opinions on how to develop think tanks in China. For instance, on one hand, the Chinese government greatly emphasizes and supports think tank construction. There are many related policy documents, and the number of think tanks has grown exponentially. It all looks promising. However, on the other hand, based on my personal experience in recent years, particularly from our school’s perspective, the government’s connection with think tanks seems to be weakening. I remember it used to be easy to invite incumbent government officials to academic activities and conferences organized by our institute. Communication was more intimate, especially with the Ministry of Commerce. We often invited ministers and department heads for discussions on current policies. But now, it’s nearly impossible. Senior officials rarely attend academic events due to the complexity of situations which places a heavy burden on them.

Furthermore, government research budgets are also shrinking. We used to undertake quite a few research projects commissioned by government departments like the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Finance. Now, such commissions have dwindled. We basically don’t take on commercial research projects anymore. Even if there’s some, the money involved is a mere 50,000 or 20,000 RMB [6839 or 2736 USD], like a drop in the bucket. Some of our long-term research projects have been discontinued due to reduced research funding. Therefore, the connection in this regard is also weakening.

The third point is, everyone in think tank industry in China knows the importance of directives from leaders. It was easier to get these directives in the past, which were considered a mark of achievement for think tanks. But now, it’s challenging to obtain them, which, at least for me, has become a demotivating factor. We rarely write policy consultation reports these days. So, while there’s support from a policy perspective, in reality, the connection is actually being weakened.

There’s also the issue of internationalization. As mentioned earlier, CCG is excellent in its international efforts. We’ve established many international connections through this platform. Just like what Mr. Lu said, CCG has established numerous international connections. Non-governmental think tanks have an advantage in this respect. They can travel abroad for months, but people from governmental think tanks can’t. There are many restrictions, such as those on official and personal passports. Generally speaking, policies restricting our international exchanges are increasing. For instance, while CCG meets with many embassies, we hesitate to do so because of the complex approval processes. Sometimes the approvals don’t get granted. Those responsible for approval have to be accountable. Thus they are reluctant to take on that responsibility. There are also bottlenecks in think tank development, either institutional or policy-related, that we need to overcome.

In my understanding, while think tanks are also called “ideological tanks,” to maximize their potential, what’s needed most is the government’s openness to new ideas. The government’s management of think tanks, or how to best utilize them, requires a more open mindset. Only then can the intellectual output of think tanks flow smoothly into government decision-making.

Zhu Feng, Executive Dean of the School of International Studies, Nanjing University of China

Both Professor Lu Xiang and Secretary-General Miao have discussed the relationship between think tanks and academic research institutions. Having worked at both the CSIS and Brookings Institution in the U.S., I’d like to emphasize that think tanks and research institutions are not synonymous, with the most vital aspect of think tanks being a kind of social force. What do I mean by a social force? It must represent the voices of the people, social groups, and social organizations. Therefore, in this sense, the vitality of a think tank fundamentally lies in its ability to effectively amplify the voices and strength of society. More importantly, it must have extensive social engagement, fostering continuous connections and relationships within society as a crucial foundation. Therefore, in this regard, if we aspire for the development of think tanks in China, and to effectively convey China’s voice on the international stage, we need to deepen the social background, role, and influence of Chinese think tanks.

I specialize in international relations and have been engaged in domestic and international affairs for over 30 years. I believe that the clear positioning of a think tank itself is essential for it to be welcomed internationally. Secondly, as an institution representing China’s social voices and social power, it’s crucial to have strong foreign language capabilities. In this regard, I believe Wang Huiyao’s proficiency in foreign languages is excellent, given that he studied in the United States. Miao Lu also excels in this area. Therefore, CCG can play a pivotal role in international exchanges and communications. Indeed, the external capabilities of CCG are quite representative among domestic think tanks. However, I personally believe that, in today’s world, including the presence of many media and journalists here today, we need to transform think tanks a vital medium for conveying China’s voice and telling China’s story effectively. Whether it’s through the media sphere or within the broader context of social and national governance, we should actively create new opportunities and conditions to further the development of think tanks.

To be candid, in recent years, when it comes to think tanks and international engagement, China’s society’s overall progress in foreign exchanges and cultural interactions has been regressing rather than advancing. This is a critical reality to acknowledge. As we all know, the recently China-Japan relations has been strained. This reminds me of 1978 when China was on the verge of initiating its reform and opening-up policies. At that time, there was a Japanese film “Sandakan No.8” (“サンダカン八番娼館 望郷”), which greatly enhanced the Chinese people’s understanding of Japan and played a significant role in further promoting communication between China and Japan. Komaki Kurihara (栗原小巻) became a crucial cultural envoy between the Chinese and Japanese people. Even after the reform and opening up, how did Chinese people come to understand the United States? It was neither through the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. There was a famous American film called “Garrison’s Gorillas” which introduced countless young Chinese people to the U.S. Can the Chinese audience still access Japanese or American films today?

Another story that has come to light is, why does the influence of South Korean think tanks, and South Korea’s overall recognition among asian countries surrounding China, surpass that of China? South Korea’s K-pop culture is widely well-known, and their K-pop groups have a strong presence in the Asian market. Even now, Chinese people watch K-pop entertainment. There was a time when “Xiao Hu Dui” (小虎隊, a Taiwanese boy band) could achieve success throughout Asian countries. Do we still have that influence now? Therefore, I believe that today’s media must act as a bridge to enhance the cultural and social communication between China and the world. The closer the societal, cultural, non-governmental, interpersonal, and international exchanges between societies and cultures, the more capacity Chinese think tanks have to tell China’s story effectively. The image of a think tank is not solely crafted by the think tank itself; more importantly, think tanks need to leverage the power of social and cultural exchanges between China and the world. Only then can the voices of Chinese think tanks truly resonate and endure.

Therefore, I believe that for Chinese think tanks to better voice their perspectives on the international stage, and it is crucial to rejuvenate social and cultural exchanges between China and the world. Such exchanges should not only be embodied through students studying abroad but should also encompass various domains including films, television dramas, music, and so forth. These are indispensable elements of social interaction, intricately woven threads that can directly shape and nurture the image of a country and serve as a genuine social force.

Wang Yiwei, President of the Institute of International Affairs and Director of the Center for European Studies, Renmin University of China

I interpret the 2.0 phase of China’s think tanks as a transition from addition to multiplication. Initially, the additive approach involved continuously increasing the number of think tanks and fostering exchanges, analogous to swapping pears and apples amongst one another. Today, the emphasis is on multiplication because the entire world seems to be dividing, illustrated by the prevalent chaos epitomized by the widespread popularity of 罗刹海”The Rakshasa Sea”. The global order is in disarray. Therefore, figuring out how to employ a multiplicative strategy poses a significant challenge. The journey from rising to revitalizing involves rising opportunistically, while revival, especially in addressing issues spanning five thousand years, is profoundly challenging. Hence, the pressing question is whether think tanks can represent wisdom accrued over five thousand years in China and articulate the voices of its 1.4 billion population. Can they help in realizing a vision of globalization while navigating through strategic challenges and obstacles? These are the arduous tasks set before the 2.0 era. The subtitle of the book Global Think Tanks 2.0, 智刃无锋”Intelligence Without a Blade,” strucks me. I foresee a future where wisdom may manifest as humility. So I believe this is a daunting endeavor.

Secondly, I would like to discuss the paradoxes encountered by Chinese think tanks in the milieu of China’s renaissance and ascent.

  1. The first is independence paradox: in order to be legitimate and thereby gain authority to act, think tanks must be independent; however, to wield influence over governmental strategies and policies, a certain degree of allegiance becomes a requisite. Certain countries envisage a relationship characterized by close alignment with the government, while others advocate for a substantial degree of independent. This constructs a paradox where excess independent can imply a lack of influence over the government; conversely, a think tank that operates in close quarters with the government runs the risk of compromising independence. Developing countries endorse closer ties between think tanks and the government, a position contrasted by developed countries that typically champion a greater distance. Balancing these interests presents a challenging paradox.
  2. The second paradox is about whether Chinese think tanks should be more Chinese or more global. Some emphasize Chinese-specific narratives, while others assimilate Chinese viewpoints into international or global contexts. Delineating whether to lean towards China or the world also constitutes a critical paradox.
  3. The third paradox pertains to whether think tanks should be more academically oriented or more focused on societal impact.

Addressing these three paradoxes simultaneously is challenging, but I believe CCG has indeed set an example. I categorize as the three“mosts” elucidated by CCG’s approach. First, CCG places the unequivocal emphasis on people, including advocating for a people-centric form of globalization. This is what the think tank has given me – many roles. People often ask how much salary I receive, and CCG probably won’t pay me a salary.

The era of think tanks has provided me with many opportunities and diverse identities. The first one indeed places a significant emphasis on people; CCG is truly unique, including the recruitment of talents and a focus on people and livelihoods. The second aspect is unquestionably the most internationally oriented. I’ve had the privilege of accompanying CCG on visits to some European and American countries, and it can truly be said to be the most recognized Chinese think tank by the West. CCG’s dialogic reach extends across diverse ideological spectra, facilitating dialogues that encompass both European and American perspectives, traversing the polarities of the left and the right. And I think this is indeed not easy. It is undoubtedly the most globalized think tank because its name is “globalization.” Now, as we reach a critical juncture in globalization, I believe that CCG being granted the official special consultative status by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) is not a coincidence. While opinions may vary regarding CCG’s representation of China, we aspire it can stand as China’s eminent voice in the global dialogue, striving toward optimal representation in articulating China’s perspectives and narratives of globalization.

Over the duration of its existence, CCG has achieved three significant milestones. Firstly, it has facilitated to assimilate Western perspectives into the Chinese context, an effort which is profoundly manifested in inviting scholars and intellectuals from Western think tanks to China. Numerous Western think tanks have come into play, with the notable instance being the publication of the book GLobal Think Tanks 2.0 that provides a comprehensive overview of Western think tanks. Second, it has focused extending Chinese perspectives to the Western world, an endeavor that involves reaching out and making inroads into Western academic and policy circles. Lastly, it has synthesized Chinese and Western wisdom into the global stream of thought, sustaining the momentum of globalization while bridging the ideological disparities between China and the West because its mission is to advocate for globalization. In conclusion, CCG has not only preserved the wisdom of 5,000 years of civilization but also provided new hope for the next 3,000 years of research and the source of globalization in the next 500 years. CCG has truly set an example. Therefore, I hope that CCG will continue to progress even further, creating CCG 2.0 in the era of Chinese think tanks 2.0 and globalization 2.0.

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