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China seeks independent thinkers amid policymaking challenges

The southern Chinese manufacturing hub of Dongguan’s decision to lure elite workers with cash payments of up to US$3,000 owed much to a think tank founded in late 2013 after President Xi Jinping urged a greater role for research houses in policymaking.

Dongguan Talent Institute submitted a report early last year to local officials that showed the region’s nascent robotics industry was craving new talent. Months later, measures were unveiled to attract top brains, including payments of 6,000 yuan (HK$7,000) for graduates and up to 20,000 yuan for doctoral students.

“Local governments now ask for field research and advice before making policies,“ said DTI director Chen Liang, who holds a PhD in history from the National University of Singapore. ”In the past, some of them just decided things off the top of their heads.”

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While Xi’s administration has tightened censorship in the press and social media and increased oversight of academia, officials are simultaneously striving to enhance the quality of advice available to policymakers.

Yet to be seen is whether the hundreds of new think tanks prove able to shake up a sector that remains dominated by elite institutions ranging from Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to the Communist Party’s own school.

There’s no shortage of weighty topics that need addressing, from the upgrade of China’s manufacturing to debt deleveraging and state-owned enterprise restructuring. Last year’s US$5 trillion Chinese equity-market meltdown also showed room for macro-policy improvement.

Voices Needed

“The one-party system can be highly efficient, but once it makes a wrong decision the losses can be huge,” said Wang Huiyao, founder and director of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG). “China needs think tanks, especially independent and private ones, more than any other country in the world.”

It needs their voices to fill in the debate that’s missing in its internal system, he said.

The nation faces unprecedented challenges as it restructures its economy away from old-line heavy manufacturing and towards consumption and services.

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The central government itself bemoaned a lack of “institutionalised channels” for outside advice to penetrate policymaking, in a January 2015 plan to boost the role of think tanks. There’s a pressing need for “decision support,” it said.

The think tank research centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which releases a ranking every year, now monitors about 400 groups, up from 279 last year. Smaller institutions like DTI don’t make it onto its radar, suggesting an even greater expansion.

Independent Advice?

While access to policymakers in China’s one-party state is the ultimate test of a think tank’s influence, such influence also has drawbacks. Dependency on funding from and approval of the government “might undermine their capabilities to produce independent advice,” according to Abigael Vasselier and Angela Stanzel, co-authors of a paper on Chinese think tanks.

With all spheres of Chinese society subject to the Communist Party, independence on the part of think tanks will be limited, according to Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

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“Some may push the boundary a bit, but few will ever dare to go beyond what the party will tolerate,” he said.

Chen at DTI, who leads a seven-member team, agrees that overreliance on government funding can’t make great think tanks. He’s also worried about those who are already in the game.

“This sector is a bit fickle,“ Chen said. ”Too many people have jumped on the bandwagon, and few of them can really sit down and do real research.”

An official from Dongguan’s talent coordination office confirmed it consulted with DTI when formulating the policy to attract experts to the city. 

Information Overload

As with other spheres – from solar power to the soccer industry – once the central government determines a priority, there’s a rush of activity that follows. Witness a proliferation of think tank research into Xi’s “One Belt One Road” vision to deepen development and Chinese influence along the old Silk Road maritime and land routes.

The International Department of the Central Committee of the communist party championed an “OBOR Think Tank Cooperation Alliance” last April, gathering about 60 official and non-official research bodies. 

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A key member was Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China, a privately funded entity established in January 2013. On their website, more than 500 articles related to OBOR were available. 

Yet there’s plenty of need for smaller-scale development planning, too, says Wang at CCG. In a country with more than 2,000 county-level governments, he estimates there could be 5,000 think tanks in years to come, twice as many as in the United States.

Wang’s institute earns about 40 per cent of its income from advice for government projects, while the remainder comes from publications, events and donations, he says. Its branch in Guangdong province in the south has worked with the local government to help roll out plans to boost the 3D printer industry.

‘Shared Agenda’

“On economics issues, think tanks and government have a shared agenda in being credible, evidence-based and at least producing robust work,” said Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College, London.

“On issues about domestic matters like rural conditions, social conditions, and so on, think tanks in China are the best placed and can offer very valuable work.”

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Meantime, overseas observers are starting to take note of the rise of China’s think tanks.

Naoko Nemoto, who works at the Asian Development Bank’s own think tank in Tokyo, says her institute is considering inviting about nine Chinese research groups to their global summit next May, alongside names such as the Brookings Institution in Washington, and the Chatham House in London.

“They are not just participants, sometimes they are taking the lead,” Nemoto said.