Is China’s quest for its own Chatham or Brookings in vain when loyalty is required for think tanks?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 May, 2017, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 5:27am

Chinese authorities are bringing the burgeoning industry of private think tanks into line with new rules ordering them to serve the Communist Party and register “big events” and overseas donations.

The new “guidelines” were issued on Thursday by nine ministerial agencies and are designed to promote “healthy development” of the sector, according to the document.

The organisations could be shut down if they failed to comply.

Jia Xijin, associate professor with Tsinghua University’s public policy school, said the tightened controls were in line with stricter regulation of private players in social management.

Non-government research institutions have mushroomed since Chinese President Xi Jinping called two years ago for the creation of “new types of think tanks with Chinese characteristics”.

By the end of last year, China had 435 think tanks, second only to the United States with 1,835, according to a list compiled by the University of Pennsylvania.

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But even the best of the Chinese institutions lag well behind the US and British leaders in influence and research quality.

Not one of the top on the University of Pennsylvania’s list was from China and the highest ranked was the government-backed China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations at 14th among the 150 non-US think tanks. The privately funded Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University was 98 in the non-US list.

While China’s top policymakers have been open to advice from academics and researchers, the government is wary of contributions that do not conform with official dogma.

The Beijing-based Unirule Institute of Economics, a think tank founded by a group of liberal-minded Chinese economists led by outspoken intellectual Mao Yushi, was harassed repeatedly by the Chinese authorities, and the institute’s website was shut down in January.

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Mao’s social media account was also deleted in an apparent attempt to silence him.

The guidelines were issued by the ministries of civil affairs, public security, finance, human resources and foreign affairs, as well as the party’s propaganda arm, the state publication administration, and the National Bureau of Statistics.

They require private think tanks to register both with the civil affairs authority and the agency overseeing the think tank’s specialist area.

They also have to report their major business activities, including publicity campaigns, and get approval to do any business with overseas parties, whether it is issuing publications or setting up websites.

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Nevertheless the private bodies are encouraged to organise or take part in international conferences and exchanges, and invite overseas counterparts to China.

The document also said think tank experts “with an international vision, a reliable political background and with equal ability and political integrity” are even encouraged to apply for consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council to play a role in global diplomacy and governance.

Jia, from Tsinghua University, said the rules meant the think tanks would no longer have the final say on many of their operations.

“Such rules will squeeze the living space and undermine the independence of non-governmental think tanks,” Jia said. “Think tanks will also be motivated to work only on projects that are of interest to the party and the government.”