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Think tanks flourishing in China

 InDepth News 01 October 2019

China has become a key player in international politics. But beyond the countless articles and reports on the economic and political rise of China, very little is known about the intellectual revolution unfolding in parallel. Though, since the opening up of the country in the 1980s and the end of Maoism as a political model, China has rediscovered its Confucian, intellectual tradition and is now buzzing with new ways of thinking. (1334 Words) - By Jaya Ramachadran


A new study points out that, with expanding numbers of graduates, it is hardly surprising to see that bright, well-travelled and polyglot young analysts join the ranks of Chinese research institutes and think tanks, thereby bringing new blood and new working methods to their host institutions.

According to Thomas Bondiguel and Thierry Kellner, associated fellows at Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS), by 2010 China had 428 think tanks, which placed it on a number two position behind the United States.

"Given China's growing presence on the international scene, think tanks have indeed been consulted more frequently by administrations and senior leaders. Every important institution dealing with diplomacy can now rely on large think tanks for support. Some recent diplomatic concepts like 'peaceful development' were conceived in consultations between the top-leadership and prominent advisors," the study presented in BICCS' latest Asia Paper says.

Think tanks are becoming increasingly topic-specific and a division of labour seems to be developing among different institutes. The quality of research has increased gradually thanks to the experience abroad of many experts, growing competition between experts and more opportunities for open debate, it adds.

Much of the interaction between think tankers and the policy makers is still built on a complex system of guanxi and seniority. Study trips abroad and consultation meetings with officials are rewarding activities for researchers who seek influence. The pishi system evaluates the quality and importance experts' reports.

Besides delivering expertise, think tanks are also expected to convey the government's viewpoint to audiences abroad. Experts have become an important part of China's public diplomacy, says the study.

It points out that few people inside and outside China have realized the extent to which informal diplomacy and think tanks permeate the Chinese diplomatic structures. The image of a mammoth monolithic state structure is increasingly further from the truth as Beijing tries to accommodate the mounting complexity of issues now faced by the country, and the tremendous speed with which this process is taking place.

In fact, an unnamed director of a Chinese think tank states that "we are only China's foreign policy think tanks at the very beginning of this process as the concept of scientific development (kexue fazhan) put forward by Hu Jintao at the 17th Party Congress gradually takes root in Chinese society.

Already visible in the attention given to knowledge-intensive fields such as cyber security or industrial R&D, the reliance on scientists and policy experts is planned to increase during the forthcoming 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), says the study.


Bondiguel and Kellner go on to say that the most Chinese government think tanks enjoy a privileged channel of influence to the high leadership through one or more of their key figures. "Ma Zhengang from CIIS, Zhou Hong from CASS or Yang Jiemian from the SIIS are reported to have been invited on a regular basis by state counsellor Dai Bingguo for senior consultations, either with other selected policy experts and officials, or at meetings of small leading groups."

Besides this direct personal influence at the higher echelons, the influence of think tank experts in the policy process is closely linked with their output in times of tensions and crises. This is especially reflected in the evaluation system (pishi) where senior officials and leaders rate the interest and importance of a given report sent by the lower echelons.

Since the reports and their accompanying pishi are circulated among concerned ministries and agencies -- somewhat similar to diplomatic telegrams in the West -- a good high-level pishi is an essential element for the career of a policy expert since it influences their reputation among peers and officials in their policy field.

Unlike in the United States, there is no revolving door phenomenon between think tanks and officials. But there is still some level of interaction, which is facilitated by the semi-governmental nature of Chinese institutions. Many think tank directors are former ambassadors and most researchers at CICIR and CIIS have occupied diplomatic positions.

According to one CIIS official, authors of the study say, these postings are known as jie diao, meaning that experts lent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) by think tanks work in embassies where they will not conduct the typical tasks of diplomats but rather advise the Ambassador on policy matters.

In these two think tanks closest to the government, CIIS for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and CICIR for the Ministry of State Security, a sizeable proportion of the research staff has been posted in a diplomatic mission at some point of their career, says the study.

It is increasingly rare that experts from outside the governmental structures enjoy this privilege. People from CASS for instance could traditionally not serve abroad but it appears that the Chinese government has recently reconsidered its approach towards the jie diao system and decided to extend the diplomatic field beyond the traditional sources of recruitment.


The most important example of this new approach can be seen in the experiment to post two Fudan University Professors to the Chinese mission to the EU. On top of the advisory tasks, these scholar-diplomats act as "soft-power buffers" and convey the Chinese views in a different way to local audiences.

The bulk of their work involved participation in think tank seminars, informal dialogues with institutions and preparing the Ambassadors' public interventions.

"We can certainly expect the Chinese government to build on the large pool of IR experts in China -- over five thousand according to a Fudan professor -- to keep on diversifying the staff of its diplomatic missions abroad," Bondiguel and Kellner say. At the moment, these jie diao diplomats can be personally handpicked by the Ambassador or selected through formal applications.

Considering the close relations between Chinese think tanks and the government, there is an overall dissatisfaction among think tankers about the level of interaction with officials. Besides the top-level senior consultations between think tank directors and Chinese leaders, it seems that it is indeed more often a one-way process.

Government officials often come in delegations to be briefed by think tank experts. It seems on the other hand that the government expects more and more from think tanks and tries to tap as much into their expertise as possible, following the millennia-old Chinese method of gathering myriad bits of information about the situation to create an overall picture.

"It appears, for instance, that all think tanks were tasked with filing a report to the State Council directly prior to President Obama's state visit last November (2009), each think tank trying to catch the good graces of the leaders by advising the right approach or foreseeing future developments," the study says.

Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei reportedly debriefed scholars at CIIS after President Obama's visit, but this seemed to be a rather infrequent event. Because "officials are too busy," complains one CIIS scholar.

An expert on European affairs latter reported that she had to insist to get feedback from officials after the EU-China summit. But this is bound to change gradually as the Chinese government seems increasingly likely to take think tanks into consideration in the policymaking process.

The scientific development concept launched in by Hu Jintao at the 17thParty Congress in 2007 is making its way through all layers of Chinese government. As early as 2002, Western analysts underlined that a more pragmatic Chinese foreign policy and a more bureaucratic policy-making process increased the opportunities for research institutes to affect foreign policy.

Originally published by InDepth News. ©


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