OP-ED: Independence and Intellectual Diversity: The Next Step in China’s Think Tank Development

By: Zaki Atia

Xi Jingping has made it clear that the development of “think tanks with Chinese characteristics” is an essential objective for his administration. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been committing substantial intellectual and financial resources to its state affiliated think tanks in order to realize this goal. However, the Chinese think tank landscape still has a long way to go if it wishes to have the same international outreach and prestige as its western counterparts.

Many think tank scholars argue that while the Chinese think tank landscape is rapidly expanding, it is still in an early stage of development. As Wang and Lu put it, China’s state affiliated think tanks are “big but not strong,” university institutions are “too academically high-brow,” and private think tanks are “weak and weary.” Huang Yangzhou is even more critical, and argues the CCP’s major investments in think tanks are just “a think-tank Great Leap Forward” because the current development strategy favors quantity over quality.  

For China’s think tank environment to get past these limitations and thrive, it must embrace intellectual diversity. The best means for the Chinese government to promote diversity in its think tank landscape is to pave the way for distinct operational models that allow for independent and private think tanks.  

The Chinese state should include independent and non-partisan think tanks in its vision. It is unclear what defines a “think tank with Chinese characteristics,” but one could speculate that it is a research institution entirely tied to the CCP. Despite how China’s state affiliated institutions have the most resources, think tank experts often criticize them for reproducing the same low-quality research and justifying the CCP’s status quo policy decisions rather than innovating new policy options.

To the credit of these state affiliated research institutions, historically there have been instances when China’s major foreign policy initiatives came from state-based think tanks. For example, Hu Jintao’s “Peaceful Rise of China” concept can be traced back to the Central Party School think tank. It is over-simplistic to assert that China’s current think tanks are purely mouthpieces for the state that will always fail to produce meaningful research.

Still, there are several reasons why allowing state affiliated and independent research institutions to both play large roles in China’s think tank landscape would be ideal for Chinese foreign policy. First, it would maximize the number of options considered by policy-makers. Independent think tanks diversify China’s public policy research because they are not limited by the parameters set by the CCP. If policy options that are distinct from state discourse are examined, Chinese policy-makers will be more equipped to address the countries many public policy challenges. Second, independence enhances the reputation of a think tanks and bolsters the credibility of Chinese research. The Brookings Institution is consistently ranked as the highest quality research institution in the world by the TTSCP’s Go to Global Think Tank Index, and a crucial factor for that ranking is the Brooking’s independent status that garners respect from think tank scholars. If Chinese tanks wish to have the same prestige and international recognition, independence is essential.

However, China’s current think tank environment does not adhere to a feasible operational model for independent research institutions. China’s private and independent think tanks will likely benefit from examining the operational model of other international top-tier think tanks. For example, the Brookings Institution deliberately enforces several regulations to maintain the independent and non-partisan image it has cultivated for over a century. Donors are not permitted to influence topics of research and any grant is turned down if it violates this principle. This system works in the US because donors to non-profits are provided tax exemptions, but the IRS requires all non-profits to publicly disclose their primary sources of funding. The US legal framework is immensely beneficial for the welfare of independent think tanks, because it incentivizes donations and transparency. The CCP can adopt a similar framework to pave the way for independent think tanks with robust funding and international prestige.

The Brookings Institution was founded by a wealthy businessman and was able to maintain funding through the donations of multiple other foundations and entrepreneurs. China’s plethora of wealthy business elites are in a similar position to establish and fund China’s own “Brookings.” It is up to the CCP to tap into this potential by providing the incentive for new operational models, rather than allow China’s state affiliated research institutions to crowd out the rest of the think tank landscape


Zaki Atia is an intern at TTCSP.  Please contact Dr. McGann to get in touch with him.