Chinese Universities Ordered to Do More to Help Inform Government Policies

March 26, 2014

This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.

China's Ministry of Education has released a new plan to boost the role of universities in advising government, including setting up special university-based centres and think-tanks to carry out research for ministries and contribute to policy-making.

It will mean that university research departments, particularly in the social sciences, will not only carry out theoretical research but will also look at research application and gear some research more closely to government decision-making processes. 

The new plan, published by the ministry this month, is also aimed at raising the standards of China's think-tank research, to match overseas consulting firms and think-tanks. 

Many international advisory companies have boosted their China research in recent years and are very active in advising businesses in China. Even Chinese companies are beginning to turn to overseas research groups in economics, finance and foreign policy, which is of concern to the government.

Investment in some Chinese university-affiliated think-tanks is being doubled or tripled and the international engagement of many is being stepped up "as part of the soft power dimension of China's rise", said James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

"In China in the last three years there has been a surge of interest which is explosive in terms of the amount of money and effort going into think-tanks.

"But the real acceleration has occurred in the last year," said McGann, who authored a recent analysis on China's think-tanks for Indiana University's Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business. 

Think-tank growth

Chinese President Xi Jinping's spoke of building "new think-tanks with Chinese characteristics" in April 2013, and repeated this during a Communist Party policy meeting last November when he stressed the importance of building modern think-tanks as a "national strategy".

Since Xi's April 2013 statement new think-tanks have emerged, often led by former politicians or military chiefs but also by top academics.

Notably, last December the elite Fudan University in Shanghai set up the Center for China Development Model Research to study social and economic policies.

Tsinghua University analyst Zhu Xufeng, who has written several books on China's think-tanks, said Xi's backing signals an awareness that stronger critical thinking is needed to support the leadership as it faces complex social, economic and environmental challenges.

The policy support Beijing needs from think-tanks will increase, "leading to a new phase of growth for think-tanks in China", Zhu predicted.

A report by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program put the number of think-tanks in China as of August of last year at 426, compared to the United States' 1,828. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of the country's top think-tanks, with more than 3,000 scholars and researchers.

The Chinese government understands that "think-tanks have potential that is national and global and they need to invest in them", McGann told University World News. "The delicate problem the leadership faces is how to bring about change in the country, without challenging the political system." 

A Ministry of Education report released on 7 March said Chinese universities participated in about 600 projects for national ministries and provided 1,600 consulting reports for the government between 2008 and 2013. Additional reports were provided by the military. 

But policy on how to communicate with university-based think-tanks is still evolving.

"China's think-tanks are still at a growth stage, and there isn't a sound mechanism for their participation in the making of public policy," Quan Heng, a researcher with the Think-tank Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, or SASS, told the official China Daily newspaper.

China Economic Weekly report last August noted that generally, provincial governments and Communist Party committees have policy study offices, provincial development research centres and decision advisory committees, which all come before local social sciences academies in consulting over policy-making.

"The social sciences academies are sometimes marginalised in the decision-making process," it said. That appears to be changing.

In the past think-tanks had a very low impact on policy, said Pascal Abb, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies in Germany.

"There were no mechanisms that could actually transfer policy suggestions to decision-makers, and that has changed over the past 10 to 15 years. Their influence is greater than formerly. Their expertise is definitely being put to use," said Abb, who has written a paper on the changing roles of China's foreign policy think-tanks.

Communications between think-tanks, and between think-tanks and government departments, will now be stepped up and research centres and think-tanks are teaming up with overseas universities to boost the quality of policy advice. 

"It's about getting the best possible advice for technocratic policy-making," said Abb. "This is a way of providing advice and even candid criticism totally internally, purely within the confines of the system."

While Western think-tanks publish most of their research openly, in China the head of the institute is a party member.

"This is not about whether they are attached to universities or somebody else. There are party structures in most of these organisations, including universities. They are not going to be independent," said Abb. 

SASS' Quan said some 40% of active think-tanks in China have strong backing either from the government or the military, which he acknowledged to some extent adversely affected the institutions' independence and representation of public interests. 

Quan noted that private or non-governmental think-tanks had sprung up over the past decade - an additional 36 active ones were founded from 2003 to 2012. But many have had problems with fundraising and disseminating information in the country's largely state-controlled media. 

Others say the number of independent think-tanks is lower than stated. "When you talk of think-tanks in China, 99% of them are government controlled, regardless of whether they are attached to a government agency or to a university," said Abb.

Nonetheless, at universities "the freedom to say what you generally think is a bit larger than for public communications, because academic debates only concern a pretty small number of participants and most people just don't read academic papers," Abb said. 

"When you have a limited academic audience, then [government] constraints on discourse are not as pronounced."

In international affairs and foreign policy there is some leeway to deviate from the official line. "Most scholars in international affairs are obviously not nationalists, but they are concerned about helping China to engage constructively with the world and it is an opportunity to also voice genuine opinions," Abb said.

Facing the outside world

Last month, for example, China announced that it would strengthen a national think-tank on the South China Sea, based at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, as part of a strategy to bolster China's territorial claims. 

The Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies, established in 2012, has already attracted top researchers. It has added 41 PhD tutors and plans to support some 100 doctoral students and 300 masters students within four years.

Chair of the board Hong Yinxing, who is also party chief of Nanjing University, said the centre had built up a new think-tank model devoted to basic research but would also "respond to the country's emergency strategic demands".

These include safeguarding China's maritime rights and interests, development of resources and energy and promoting regional peace and development, Hong told China Daily.

"The new cultivation style gathers maritime talent in different subjects and sciences, prompts them to learn from each other, facilitates brainstorming and then gives a boost to the integration and comprehensiveness of research.

"This is something unimaginable in the past," Hong noted.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, which is linked to the Hainan provincial government, said Chinese think-tanks traditionally placed more emphasis on historical studies than legal issues. 

"The centre will facilitate China's ambition of having a bigger say in the world as well as its public diplomacy," Wu said. 

Academic quality

Meanwhile, Abb noted that the quality of research has risen dramatically.

Previously "a bunch of retired ministry officials [would be sent] to think-tanks and carry the kind of group think that they used to have in the ministry to the think-tank.

"Nowadays, virtually every think-tank scholar has a PhD, often from a foreign university - a US university for example. These people have been educated, at least in the social sciences, at a level pretty much equal to their counterparts in Western think-tanks.

"So the academic ability in these think-tanks has greatly risen."