China’s think tank sector has seen a significant increase in political attention and available resources, but its development is still hindered by the domestic political dynamics of the PRC. Think tanks are caught between incompatible goals pursued by different parts of the government and struggle to raise their international profile as intended. While realizing these limitations, they offer the best chance to understand emerging Chinese policies, and are important international partners for European institutes.
Can you sum up the development of Chinese think tanks
and especially where we are now?
Chinese think tanks are a relatively new arrival on
the Chinese policy-making scene. You had some
early experimentation with think tanks or policy research institutes in general
in the 1950s and the 1960s, which largely followed established Soviet models.
This was, however, aborted in the late 1960s as a result of the Cultural
In the late 1970s, you had a new
drive for more pragmatic policy, and to establish research capacities to advise
the government. Deng Xiaoping took a personal initiative in establishing new
think tanks and re-establishing and expanding existing ones.
The most recent phase of development started
in 2013, when Xi Jinping expressed personal interest in the subject. Later on, his
government rolled out a major new initiative to build so-called ‘new-type think
tanks with Chinese characteristics’. This is basically about upgrading the
Chinese think tank capacities, keeping their linkage to the party-state nexus,
and enacting some internal reforms to make them more efficient, like conducting
Can you talk more about what is behind the
recent push to develop Chinese think tanks which started in 2013?
This think tank drive is supposed to
further a range of political objectives, the most important one of which is to
make Chinese policymaking more efficient and supposedly scientific. If you look
at the Chinese regime, it bases its legitimacy, at least since the reform era,
on performance – like providing improved living standards – rather than
establishing democratic procedures. That is, of course, something where
technocratic advice is supposed to help you. So, the think tanks are in a way
very central to the vision of governance which Xi Jinping is promoting right
They are supposed to provide policy input
without the kind of messy debates known to democratic societies, which often
result in direct, public criticism of the government. The crucial difference in
China is that by keeping this debate restricted to think tanks, you also restrict it to internal communication
channels. This way, criticism of policies can be voiced without the public
hearing and without this being seen as a challenge to the government.
And then you have a set of more specific
objectives, for example, increasing Chinese soft power at the international
level. If you have globally competitive Chinese think tanks, they can tell a
more positive story about China and also shape the world’s perception of China.
The goal is that they are able to compete on an even level with American think
tanks which are dominating international political discourses.
Finally, think tanks are also supposed to be
part of broader domestic consensus building. Think tanks and experts are
supposed to exercise something called ‘public opinion guidance’, which means educating
the public about the supposed benefits of policies which the government is
What are the differences between
think tanks in China and think tanks we know from elsewhere – are they the same
kind of animals?
Most fundamentally, think tanks in Western
countries are usually conceived to be part of civil society. In China, all of
the major players are in some way connected to either the government, the party,
or the military. Chinese think tanks are supposed to be supportive of the
government and its political objectives and are not to conduct criticism that
could be seen as a general challenge to the legitimacy of the system. This, of
course, restricts the kinds of opinions which they are willing to voice on the
international stage or when they engage in public debates in the media within
Like Western think tanks, they are
overwhelmingly focused on pitching ideas to government decision-makers on how
to achieve broad political aims. It’s just that those aims are not set by the
think tanks themselves, so they don’t consider themselves beholden to broad
ideological movements like conservatism, liberalism, social democracy etc. They
are willing to accept these goals as externally set, but still provide the same
kind of work when it comes to breaking that down to the policy level.
And, of course, they are conducting other kinds
of activities which think tanks do like having international discussions,
policy forums and generally track two activities. So I would say there are no
major differences in the kind of work which they do between the Chinese and
international think tanks.
Is there something specific in
Chinese culture or traditions which makes it different or maybe even more
welcoming to the whole think thank idea of technocratic advice?
Many Chinese scholars try to stress that think
tanks have organizational precepts not just in Western countries or the Soviet
Union, but also traditionally within China. They have usually been pointing to
the role of scholar-advisors whom you find in imperial administrations. Supposedly,
Confucian intellectuals would come through a very long education in Confucian
classics, achieving a kind of moral perfection on the way and enabling them to advise
the Chinese emperor on current issues of the day. This tradition of scholarly advice
to political power has a long tradition in Chinese governance.
I would like to dig a bit deeper into why Xi Jinping
and his government tries to promote think thanks so much. As you mentioned, there
are more possible goals. One kind of answer focuses on the promotion of a ‘China story’ and Chinese
soft power, another is to provide advice to the government. If the primary goal
was to provide advice for the government, you don’t need to have something so
public as think thanks because you could basically just have an additional
department in your government. Since we are having Chinese think tanks and they
are trying to be present in public, both in Chinese media and international
media, it seems that maybe the goal of public diplomacy might be even more
important than advising the government.
I wouldn’t make a judgment on which
of these goals is the most important one and which is of secondary importance,
because the think tank development strategy is basically crafted to fulfil all
of these goals and they are not seen to be in competition with each other. I
think the reason why these kinds of capacities exist within separate institutes
and not within the bureaucracy is that if you create at least a degree of
institutional separation then you can overcome their domination by
However, what makes it very difficult
to realize in practice is that for the vast majority of their communication
when it comes to political advice, they are still tied to one specific supervising
agency which gets to determine how to disseminate the output they receive from
their think tanks. Think tanks themselves have been slightly frustrated with this kind of way in
which their product is handled because a vast majority of experts would never
receive any sort of feedback. This is why for them it’s become more attractive
to take on a greater public role, which is pretty new for Chinese think tanks. This
did not happen at all in the 1990s, and even in the 2000s it was only very
Nowadays, public platforms are huge, and
they offer a way to go around the inflexible bureaucratic mechanisms. You can now
talk directly to the people through the media, you can advocate for specific policies, you can point
out problems – always in a limited way, of course, but still. You can also
publish materials which may catch the eye of decision makers and get a direct
channel which you don’t have normally.
How successful are Chinese think tanks internationally
in promoting Chinese soft power?
Not as successful as they would like
to be, definitely, especially considering how prominent this goal has been
within the think tank drive. One major issue which Chinese think tanks are
still facing is that whenever they interact with Western counterparts, the
other side is aware of the fact that they are strongly tied to the Chinese
government and they will also soon find out they are not willing to have
completely open debates about Chinese policies. That is something which
undercuts their international messaging ability.
They will, sometimes unfairly, be
discounted as government mouthpieces, although I think that’s not the case.
They’re still supposed to interpret government policies rather than simply
repeat them, but still, the interpretation is always expected not to fundamentally
question the sense of these policies. That is something very different, for
example, from engaging with American think tanks affiliated with the current
opposition in the United States – they will be all too happy to criticize Trump,
which of course people in Europe will be happy to hear.
With Chinese think tanks, you cannot
expect the same kind of criticism of the Chinese government, at least its
high-profile policies. That has led to a situation where even though these
think tanks are now much better resourced than they used to be, they do not yet
have the same kind of international profile that is even
just approaching that of major
American think tanks.
Then you have more specific problems
that affect their international messaging abilities. As part of the anti-corruption
campaign, the ability of Chinese researchers to leave the country to
participate in international conferences has shrunk dramatically. If you look
at the list of attendees to ISA, for example, the number of Chinese
participants has dropped off in recent years. That is simply because they now
have a much tougher time to get travel approvals and funding for conferences
and research visits from their institutes. This is not even related to
political constraints, it’s mostly about the anti-corruption campaign, but it
has also impacted their international networking ability.
It got to a situation where one part
of the government has set the aim of strengthening Chinese soft power and
international networking, and then another part of the government is actively
working against these goals, because they are focused on other priorities like
regime security and anti-corruption. Think tanks and experts are caught in
between as collateral damage. This is, of course, limiting their ability to fulfil
What do you think about the recent discussion
about ‘Chinese influence’ in the West? It seems that in the past, it was the
West who was confident in communicating with China because the idea perhaps
was, that in this way, we can influence China but not be influenced by it too
much. It might seem the West is losing its confidence and many feel that we
are, as the West, are now more influenced by China than vice versa.
I think the objectives of Western
countries and China are very different in one fundamental sense. When you look
at China’s international messaging, they almost always restrict themselves to
shaping the narrative surrounding China. They want to influence how the rest of
the world thinks about China, but they’re not interested in actively trying to
influence domestic politics in European countries, as, for example, Russia has
done. Chinese still feel they are playing defence, especially when it comes to
broad ideological questions. When it comes to the influence of liberalism, they
still see these kinds of political philosophies and the discourses surrounding
them as threats to China and something that needs to be kept out of China, but
not so much something which China is supposed to counter globally by providing
an alternative in the form of a political philosophy. That is also why Chinese
think tanks are so focused on talking about issues that directly impact China
and its perception in the world.
Should the western think tanks and academics
interact with Chinese think tanks and, if so, how?
Yes, they absolutely should, even though these policy discussion formats are
tightly scripted, and may be redundant and frustrating at times. But think
tanks are important in several regards. First of all, they are our most
effective window on Chinese policymaking. This is a very intransparent process
and think tanks are really the only part of it which we as academics can access
relatively openly. By studying what kinds of issues Chinese think tanks are researching we know what’s also on the
agenda of the government, so the strong linkage between the think tanks and the
government works to our advantage actually.
It’s also important to simply get
more information about what kinds of aims any given Chinese policy is pursuing.
The interpretations delivered by think tanks are very valuable in this regard.
We should definitely keep up this
exchange in the future and actually intensify it at every opportunity. We
should also try to build personal ties with colleagues within China, especially
people who are interested in critical perspectives, although for obvious
reasons they are not willing to openly voice them. In any case, by engaging
them personally, we can get a clearer picture of how Chinese academics,
scholars, think tankers, and experts are actually debating issues facing China
and the world.
Are there any risks involved which we should keep
in mind when interacting with Chinese think tanks?
Of course. Look at the case of
Michael Kovrig, an international think tanker who was working on some sensitive
issues, especially North Korea. He was jailed in China last December and has still
not been released. His only crime was having researched some sensitive
political issues and basically being Canadian at a time when China-Canada
relations hit rock bottom as a result of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s
CFO. We need to face the fact that simply by being physically present in China,
you could end up as a pawn in some political struggle between China and Western
It might also be a risk that the
Chinese government will try to use your participation in dialogues as an
international researcher as a sort of endorsement of Chinese policies or the
broader Chinese model of governance. You cannot completely avoid this because
it’s not possible to interact with Chinese think tanks that would be situated
in civil society, as the vast majority of the big players are all state-run
We just need to acknowledge these
risks and should keep them in mind, but they should not scare us away from
interacting with our Chinese colleagues.
Should we treat Chinese think tanks and scholars
as independent to some extent, or should we treat them as representatives of
the agencies and organizations they are affiliated with?
Most Chinese intellectuals, including
think tankers, are members of a broad social class called ‘establishment
intellectuals.’ These are people who could not do their jobs if they did not
follow the broad political directives set by the Chinese government. Apart from
that, there is also a genuine personal identification with the broad aims set forth
by the Chinese government. The rejuvenation of China as a great power is of obvious
appeal to many Chinese intellectuals, who may sometimes genuinely believe that
the Chinese government has been effective at delivering on these kinds of
strategies. So if they voice support of their government and its policies, it’s
not necessarily because they are propagandists.
This background shapes how they interact with foreigners, and we need to be aware of it. Yet, the worst thing we could do is to break off these talks because that is something which can only worsen political relations in the long run.
Pascal Abb is a senior researcher at the Austrian Study Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR). His research has mainly focused on Chinese foreign policy and the role which experts and think tanks play in its formulation. As part of a visiting scholarship at Tsinghua University, he organized an international workshop on „Think Tanks in Asia“ in 2016 that led to the publication of a special issue of Pacific Affairs comparing development trends in different countries in the region.