Maxim Shemetov / Reuters Members of the military band of the People's Liberation Army of China perform during the City Day celebration in central Moscow, September 5, 2015.

Where China Can’t Compete

Beijing's Think Tank Trouble

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 latest review had to do with analyzing Xi’s thoughts or ideology.

As Beijing burrows further into setting rules on office size, the number of courses one can serve at a conference meal, and the length of a research trip (five days in one country, including travel time), it is likely that think tank work, like government work more generally, will become less attractive to China’s top brains.

In addition, research that strays too far from the party line or that gets ahead of party dictates is often sanctioned rather than celebrated. In October 2014, for example, the government banned the publication of the works of the well-regarded economist Mao Yushi, who founded the independent Unirule Institute and is a noted supporter of liberal political and economic ideals. Mao incurred the wrath of many political conservatives when he criticized the legacy of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Even scholars at the heart of Communist Party institutions such as the Central Party School can run afoul of Beijing’s strictures on political correctness. One researcher who got ahead of Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang by publicly suggesting that China begin to distance itself from North Korea was dismissed. Chinese scholars have little incentive to promote policy proposals that differ significantly from prevailing government direction. Yet these are precisely the ideas that leaders need to hear.

To be world-class, Chinese research institutions must also be able to cooperate and compete openly in the international arena. However, Chinese think tanks are encouraged to do the opposite: access to ideas and even scholars from outside China is painted as dangerous. A Chinese think tank leader recently called for establishing a “blacklist of unpopular overseas scholars” so that they were “kept away from China’s idea market and marginalized by Chinese intellectuals.” Blocking foreign news sites on the Internet also prevents Chinese scholars from developing the fullest understanding of how world events—and indeed China itself—are viewed outside the country. As one Chinese scholar noted on WeChat, “Chinese think tanks do not have the ability to correctly predict the rapid changes of international situations.”

China's national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium in this August 8, 2008 file photo.

China's national flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium in this August 8, 2008 file photo. 

Finally, even as the government is pouring financial resources into research institutions to achieve a “think tank Great Leap Forward,” its greater intrusion into management and process may defeat its broader purpose. As the government burrows further into setting rules on office size, the number of courses one can serve at a conference meal, and the length of a research trip (five days in one country, including travel time), it is likely that think tank work, like government work more generally, will become less attractive to China’s top brains. Certainly, the many very talented Chinese scholars who now populate universities and think tanks abroad will not be tempted to return.

Soon, Xi is going to pay his first state visit to the United States. The Chinese media have underscored the importance of American think tank representatives attending Xi’s speech in Seattle so that they can, as Ambassador Cui Tiankai put it, “listen to President Xi’s important speech face-to-face.” At the same time, Xi and his delegation might look to that same audience to remind themselves of the intellectual creativity and strength that can arise when you let a hundred flowers blossom. 

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