Xufeng Zhu is currently Professor at the Zhou Enlai School of Government, Director of the Centre of Chinese Policy Science, and Associate Director of the Centre for MPA Education, Nankai University. He has published extensively, including on China’s Think Tanks (Tsinghua University Press, 2009) and on Expert Participation in Policy Change (China Renmin University Press, 2012).

Think tanks are organisations serving as ‘external brains’ of government. Since World War II, they have become important participants in the policy making process of western countries, especially the United States. Some western scholars have emphasized non-profitability and independence from government, political parties, and interest groups as defining features of think tanks. Strictly speaking, there are no such equivalent organisations in China. However, China has for decades had a diverse ecosystem of organisations that serve as policy researchers and advisors to the government. In 2007, the report of the 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress explicitly mentioned “the roles of think tanks” for the first time. This recognition and support from the authorities signified the anticipated rapid development of think tanks in China as well as their expanding influence.

Broadly speaking, China’s ‘think tanks’ are stable and autonomous organisations that conduct research and provide consultancy services on policy issues. There are three basic types of policy research institutes in China:

  • official policy research institutes (affiliated to particular ministries and ministries’ institutional missions)
  • semi-official think tanks (which have some connections to a supervising government agency)
  • non-governmental think tanks.

The latter two types are government’s external policy research institutes, which we may call think tanks. 

 The first category of think tank, based on the Soviet model, appeared during the Yan’an period (1935-1948). These institutes mushroomed in the 1950s and 1960s and include the Research Office of the State Council and the Office of Policy Studies of local governments, Ministries and Commissions. Under Chinese law, an official policy research institute is regarded as a government agency, but functions as an immediate actor in the governmental policy making process, not as an external brain for government. They are responsible for drafting important policies, releasing information, and organising studies on policy issues.

Semi-official think tanks are the most important component in the policy research and consultation system outside the government of China. Semi-official think tanks are independent legal bodies founded by the government, who act as their supervisor. Under Chinese law, semi-official think tanks are public institutions. The two most important institutes of this type of think tanks are the Development Research Center (DRC) of State Council and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

Semi-official think tanks are not completely autonomous, but they are run in a more autonomous manner than official policy research institutes. They are headed by government-nominated personnel and accept start-up capital from their supervising government agencies. They also receive a steady flow of core funds for regular research tasks assigned to them. Their policy outputs are thus somewhat shaped by government directives. On the other hand, semi-official think tanks have more freedom as they can accept external funds and research tasks from other government departments and organisations, even international organisations. With diminishing official sponsorship, semi-official think tanks have also become increasingly market oriented.

Compared with their predecessors, semi-official think tanks and their experts today are more independent of government agencies and their financers. They are also bolder in expressing viewpoints that diverge from those of government. Moreover, China’s think tanks are exerting growing influence. Think tanks have started to take part in open policy debates. 

A third category, non-government think tanks, emerged after Deng Xiaopings’s South China tour in 1992. Of note are two types of non-governmental think tanks:

  • Those set up by China’s colleges and universities by returned scholars, which tend to develop new concepts and enjoy overseas sponsorship: eg the China Center for Economic Research(CCER), set up in Peking University by Justin Yifu Lin.
  • Those set up by experts who had success in public institution-type think tanks, which are often founded by experts who left their former organizations to run their own research agencies in pursuance of their own ideological ambitions and beliefs. For instance, Unirule Institute of Economicsfounded by Mao Yushi in 1993 or Siyuan Social Sciences Research Center, Beijing (SSSRC) founded by Cao Siyuan in 1988.

The development of non-governmental think tanks is posing challenges to the traditional framework of policy consultation which used to be dominated by semi-official think tanks. Government officials are paying more attention to the opinions proposed by non-governmental think tanks than before, especially in the international relations field. (See Shambaugh, David. “China’s International Relations Think Tanks: Evolving Structure and Process.” The China Quarterly Vol. 171 (2002), pp. 575-96.) Non-governmental think tanks are also an increasingly important link between Chinese government officials and foreign experts. (See Glaser, B. S. and P. C. Saunders. “Chinese Civilian Foreign Policy Research Institutes: Evolving Roles and Increasing Influence.” The China Quarterly Vol. 171 (2002), pp. 597-616.)

An important feature in the Chinese think tank system is the emerging ‘revolving door’.

In the past, many of China’s think tank experts were co-opted into the government departments as government officials. One of the most remarkable examples is Zhu Rongji, who served as the Office Director of Industrial Economics Research of the CASS at the very beginning of the reform and opening-up in the end of 1970s, before becoming a well-respected Chinese Premier (1998-2003). Recently, it is not unusual for officials who have academic backgrounds return to think tanks after their retirement. For example, a newly established think tank, the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE, in 2009) acts as the revolving door, where many retired officials serve as the think tank’s leaders and take the lead in conducting the research work.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like the think tank world in China is a bit like in some European countries where there are policy research units inside government attached to ministries; in semi-public research units partially funded by the state but independent from it and operating as well on a contract basis and providing a second opinion to the state’s own policy research units; and finally non-profit private think tanks.  One wonders, however, how “independent” the semi-public research units are in China compared to Europe.