Top Watch
Chinese think tanks increasing global presence
By Liu Yi | Updated: 2018-08-10 11:07

Today, as public policies are openly debated across a wider scope, the role of think tanks is becoming more prominent in Chinese public life by offering professional advice and reliable information. In fact, China ranks No 2 in the number of think tanks as of the end of 2017, excelling European countries and India and second only to the United States, according to the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, released by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), University of Pennsylvania, in 2018.

However, in the Top Think Tanks Worldwide list unveiled in the same report, only six Chinese think tanks squeezed into the top 100, and the highest slot was 30th by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

The expansion in the number of think tanks in China began in April 2013, when President Xi Jinping called on building new-type think tanks with Chinese characteristic, in a bid to modernize governance system and capability. It was seen as the start of continuous efforts in making an overarching plan in this regard. At the end of that year, the Chinese government confirmed a national strategy of building new-type think tanks, actuating a slew of follow-up policies.

The number of active think tanks (operating for three years or more) was 276 in 2013, and 464 in 2017, with a yearly rise of 13.6 percent, according to the Center for Think Tank Studies (CTTS) of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the first of its kind engaged in think tank research in China.

CTTS also tracked the issues concerning Chinese think tanks, which to some extent projected the stage and trends of their development. In 2013, a sizable part of the CTTS report was contributed to the discussion on how to define and categorize Chinese think tanks and how to transform a traditional research institution to a modern one. Five years later, the most concerned issue is, as shown in CTTS 2017 report, how to build up think tank capacity to have a greater say in the world.

The low profile of Chinese think tanks apparently perplexed Chinese think tank managers. Think tanks basically function as an intermediary bridging the gap between knowledge and policy. In an era of globalization, a strong presence in the world enables institutions to have a good, sufficient interaction with policymakers, media, and people of different countries, which will lay a solid base for generating policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues.

James G. McGann, director of the TTCSP and in charge of the annual assessment program, likened Chinese think tanks to a “black hole”, in a conference late June in Beijing. He spoke frankly and noted that accessibility is equally important to the efficiency of their research.

Information accessibility

“They are lying in the sands below,” said McGann, describing what he felt when trying to get some information from websites of Chinese think tanks. His effort was of little avail, as all information was put in Chinese. “It’s not a bad thing, of course,” he said. “But if you want to win global influence, it is very necessary to translate at least the key works to foreign languages.”

Languages, however, is just the first step, and wouldn’t necessarily mean effective communication. Take Theory China as an example. The website, operated by the research arm of China Compilation and Translation Bureau, uses as many as eight languages to introduce theories and documents related to China’s governance, but the traffic has remained sluggish.

The reason lies in the variant discourse systems. Gao Shuguo, vice-general-secretary of Chinese Society of Education, observed that most domestic think tanks, just evolved from academic institutions, are still using the scholastic discourse that they are used to. Bearing in mind that information is spreading, Gao said, the pedantic language should be converted to plain, user-friendly languages, such as stories and news language.

Compared with research-oriented experts, think tanks should be particularly expressive. They need to clarify complex scholastic research and analysis and explain to policymakers and the public, what is key to give a full play of the research fruits.

Frankly speaking, those adept in telling stories, especially in foreign languages, are rarely found in Chinese think tanks. It probably explains why nowadays more serious journalists have joined think tanks, a trend can be spotted not only in China, but elsewhere. McGann recalled a gathering of North American think tanks last year, where about 70 percent of attendees have a background as reporters. “They used to conduct in-depth investigation and analysis, and they know what efficient communication is,” said McGann. “They are a group of people with special value to think tanks.”

Wider scope of communication

Emerging IT technologies make immediate, direct communication possible, especially at a lower cost with higher efficiency. Think tanks are able to keep up with the situations of many places, and increase correlation of their study with communities across the world.

But a more proactive attitude needs to be adopted. Chinese think tanks should talk more about issues other than domestic affairs, said Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, one of the six think tanks (and the only private one) included in the 2017 worldwide top 100 list.

“We have confined ourselves to China issues,” Wang opined. If we don’t make our voice heard on affairs that Europe, Africa or America are concerned about, they won’t be aware of the necessity of listening to us, he added.

In contrast, US think tanks are poised to offer opinions and suggestions on any hot topic in any place. It shows their accumulative knowledge on foreign affairs, but more importantly a globalized vision. Put extending influence aside, contributing Chinese solutions to others should be seen as a responsibility in a world that is unprecedentedly connected.

On the other hand, Chinese think tanks need to include normal people to their scope of communication. Alistair Michie, secretary general of the British East Asia Council and a chief adviser of the Chinese Government’s Foreign Experts Advisory Committee (FEAC), is an earnest advocate of people-to-people exchanges. In Britain, Michie said, children learn little about China in school, so they have no interest in China study or related majors when applying for college. China is going to be the world’s biggest economy, Michie continued, but if people have no idea about that, how could they prepare for that?

The responsibility of informing people of the real China should be taken by no others but Chinese think tanks. The work is challenging but achievable, with the help of ubiquitous social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Michie also suggested talking with schools to add more China-related subjects to the curriculum.

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China Top Think Tanks

Twenty-five institutions were listed as the first group of China Top Think Tanks in December 2015, whose research areas include politics, economy, technology, military and law. They are:

Development Research Center of the State Council

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Chinese Academy of Sciences

Chinese Academy of Engineering

Party School of the Central Committee of CPC

Chinese Academy of Governance

Xinhua News Agency (Liaowang Institute)

Academy of Military Sciences PLA China

National Defence University of PLA

Central Compilation and Translation Bureau

National Institution for Finance and Development

National Institute for Global Strategy, CASS

China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Macro Economic Research Institute of the State Development and Reform Commission

Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, Ministry of Commerce

National School of Development at Peking University

Institute for Contemporary China Studies, Tsinghua University

National Academy of Development and Strategy, Renmin University of China

China Institute, Fudan University

Institute of International Law, Wuhan University

Institute of Guangdong Hong Kong and Macao Development Studies, Sun Yat-sen University

Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

CNPC Economics & Technology Research Institute

China Center for International Economic Exchanges

China Development Institute

 

Countries with largest number of think tanks

1. United States (1,872)

2. China (512)

3. United Kingdom (444)

4. India (293)

5. Germany (225)

6. France (197)

7. Argentina (146)

8. Japan (116)

9. Russia (103)

10. Canada (100)

Source: 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report

 

Top think tanks worldwide

1. Brookings Institution (US)

2. French Institute of International Relations (France)

3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (US)

4. Bruegel (Belgium)

5. Center for Strategic and International Studies (US)

6. Chatham House (UK)

7. Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Brazil)

8. Heritage Foundation (US)

9. RAND Corporation (US)

10. International Institute for Strategic Studies (UK)

Source: 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report

 

Related reports

Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, released by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), at the University of Pennsylvania.

Annual report released by the Center for Think Tank Studies (CTTS) of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the first of its kind engaged in such think tank research in China.

Today, as public policies are openly debated across a wider scope, the role of think tanks is becoming more prominent in Chinese public life by offering professional advice and reliable information. In fact, China ranks No 2 in the number of think tanks as of the end of 2017, excelling European countries and India and second only to the United States, according to the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, released by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP), University of Pennsylvania, in 2018.

However, in the Top Think Tanks Worldwide list unveiled in the same report, only six Chinese think tanks squeezed into the top 100, and the highest slot was 30th by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

The expansion in the number of think tanks in China began in April 2013, when President Xi Jinping called on building new-type think tanks with Chinese characteristic, in a bid to modernize governance system and capability. It was seen as the start of continuous efforts in making an overarching plan in this regard. At the end of that year, the Chinese government confirmed a national strategy of building new-type think tanks, actuating a slew of follow-up policies.

The number of active think tanks (operating for three years or more) was 276 in 2013, and 464 in 2017, with a yearly rise of 13.6 percent, according to the Center for Think Tank Studies (CTTS) of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the first of its kind engaged in think tank research in China.

CTTS also tracked the issues concerning Chinese think tanks, which to some extent projected the stage and trends of their development. In 2013, a sizable part of the CTTS report was contributed to the discussion on how to define and categorize Chinese think tanks and how to transform a traditional research institution to a modern one. Five years later, the most concerned issue is, as shown in CTTS 2017 report, how to build up think tank capacity to have a greater say in the world.

The low profile of Chinese think tanks apparently perplexed Chinese think tank managers. Think tanks basically function as an intermediary bridging the gap between knowledge and policy. In an era of globalization, a strong presence in the world enables institutions to have a good, sufficient interaction with policymakers, media, and people of different countries, which will lay a solid base for generating policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues.

James G. McGann, director of the TTCSP and in charge of the annual assessment program, likened Chinese think tanks to a “black hole”, in a conference late June in Beijing. He spoke frankly and noted that accessibility is equally important to the efficiency of their research.

Information accessibility

“They are lying in the sands below,” said McGann, describing what he felt when trying to get some information from websites of Chinese think tanks. His effort was of little avail, as all information was put in Chinese. “It’s not a bad thing, of course,” he said. “But if you want to win global influence, it is very necessary to translate at least the key works to foreign languages.”

Languages, however, is just the first step, and wouldn’t necessarily mean effective communication. Take Theory China as an example. The website, operated by the research arm of China Compilation and Translation Bureau, uses as many as eight languages to introduce theories and documents related to China’s governance, but the traffic has remained sluggish.

The reason lies in the variant discourse systems. Gao Shuguo, vice-general-secretary of Chinese Society of Education, observed that most domestic think tanks, just evolved from academic institutions, are still using the scholastic discourse that they are used to. Bearing in mind that information is spreading, Gao said, the pedantic language should be converted to plain, user-friendly languages, such as stories and news language.

Compared with research-oriented experts, think tanks should be particularly expressive. They need to clarify complex scholastic research and analysis and explain to policymakers and the public, what is key to give a full play of the research fruits.

Frankly speaking, those adept in telling stories, especially in foreign languages, are rarely found in Chinese think tanks. It probably explains why nowadays more serious journalists have joined think tanks, a trend can be spotted not only in China, but elsewhere. McGann recalled a gathering of North American think tanks last year, where about 70 percent of attendees have a background as reporters. “They used to conduct in-depth investigation and analysis, and they know what efficient communication is,” said McGann. “They are a group of people with special value to think tanks.”

Wider scope of communication

Emerging IT technologies make immediate, direct communication possible, especially at a lower cost with higher efficiency. Think tanks are able to keep up with the situations of many places, and increase correlation of their study with communities across the world.

But a more proactive attitude needs to be adopted. Chinese think tanks should talk more about issues other than domestic affairs, said Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, one of the six think tanks (and the only private one) included in the 2017 worldwide top 100 list.

“We have confined ourselves to China issues,” Wang opined. If we don’t make our voice heard on affairs that Europe, Africa or America are concerned about, they won’t be aware of the necessity of listening to us, he added.

In contrast, US think tanks are poised to offer opinions and suggestions on any hot topic in any place. It shows their accumulative knowledge on foreign affairs, but more importantly a globalized vision. Put extending influence aside, contributing Chinese solutions to others should be seen as a responsibility in a world that is unprecedentedly connected.

On the other hand, Chinese think tanks need to include normal people to their scope of communication. Alistair Michie, secretary general of the British East Asia Council and a chief adviser of the Chinese Government’s Foreign Experts Advisory Committee (FEAC), is an earnest advocate of people-to-people exchanges. In Britain, Michie said, children learn little about China in school, so they have no interest in China study or related majors when applying for college. China is going to be the world’s biggest economy, Michie continued, but if people have no idea about that, how could they prepare for that?

The responsibility of informing people of the real China should be taken by no others but Chinese think tanks. The work is challenging but achievable, with the help of ubiquitous social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Michie also suggested talking with schools to add more China-related subjects to the curriculum.

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