Chinese President Xi Jinping wants China to be a world-class competitor—from its soccer team to its military to its currency. And with the right investment in human, financial, and institutional capacity, there is no reason he should not succeed. Yet in one critical area, Xi is likely to fall short: the development of world-class think tanks. In 2013, Xi called for the establishment of think tanks with “Chinese characteristics” and made their development a strategic priority. Almost two years later, in January 2015, reportedly unhappy with such research institutions’ weak predictive capacity, low international standing, and inability to sell Chinese ideas globally, he upped the ante by unveiling plans to build 50 to 100 “high end” centers capable of competing internationally. Despite such high-level commitment, however, the country is struggling to fulfill Xi’s ambition.
Certainly there is no shortage of think tanks or talented people to fill them. There are reportedly more than 2,000 policy research institutions, boasting 35,000 full-time researchers and 270,000 support staff. The vast majority—as much as 95 percent—are government supported; slowly, however, nongovernmental think tanks, in some cases funded by wealthy Chinese benefactors, are also emerging to provide at least the appearance of intellectual independence.
Yet there is little chance that even these nongovernmental institutions will ever fulfill Xi’s desire for world-class intellectual discourse. Scholarship thrives in an open environment that allows for significant independence in terms of what research topics are pursued, what ideas are advanced, and how research is rewarded. Yet at each step of the way, Beijing undercuts its ambition for excellence. First, it limits the scope of topics that are allowed to be researched. The 2014 research agenda, for example, focused on five areas: the “new normal” in the Chinese economy, comprehensively deepening reform, constructing rule by law, the 13th Five-Year Plan and development strategy, and the “one belt, one road” strategy. Topics such as constitutional democracy and universal values are banned. Moreover, nearly all of the proposals that the National Social Sciences Fund approved in the
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