The term “think tank” may be new in China, but since ancient times the country’s rulers and aristocracy have had a tradition of valuing counsel from scholars and people with diverse backgrounds.

One such ruler was Lord Mengchang during the Warring States period more than 2,000 years ago. He supported up to 3,000 people as retainers in his home. He was known to take copious notes during many discussions while wining and dining his entourage and his family almost every night.

Now the Chinese leadership wants to emulate Mengchang by grooming think tanks with global influence to match its expanding economic clout in the international arena.

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But while making great progress, China faces some internal challenges when it comes to fitting modern ideas about think tanks into its political culture, especially when the institutions express thoughts that are in conflict with the government.

On January 25, a media report showed China’s 435 think tanks put it second in the world, behind only the United States with 1,835. And nine Chinese think tanks were included among the world’s best in the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, published by the think tank and civil societies programme at the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute.

But just five days before the media report, China’s cyber-regulators shut down the social media accounts and website of the Unirule Institute of Economics, a liberal and non-governmental think tank founded by Mao Yushi, an outspoken economist.

The closure came two days after Mao lashed out at the country’s top judge, Supreme People’s Court chief justice Zhou Qiang, for rejecting the concept of judicial independence. Ironically, Mao’s institute is one of the nine Chinese think tanks that was reported to be among the best in the world.

On Monday, in a high-level meeting to discuss reform matters chaired by President Xi Jinping (習近平), the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform approved a document to promote the development of non-governmental think tanks, according to Xinhua.

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While the details of the document have yet to be released, the report said that Communist Party theories would be used to guide the development of non-governmental think tanks, they would be asked to put social responsibility first and they should study major projects of the party and the state. It said think tanks that followed these guidelines would be given more channels to participate in policymaking and their talent management would be further improved.

Xi reportedly took a personal interest in pushing the development of think tanks soon after he came to power in late 2012.

A central government document in 2014 called for the establishment of highly professional and internationally influential think tanks by 2020 to focus on strategic issues and public policies to help improve China’s governance and boost its soft power.

This has led to what some analysts call a great leap forward in think tanks, as central government departments, local authorities and universities scramble to refashion old research institutes into think tanks, or set up completely new ones.

But the mushrooming number belies the fact that high-quality think tanks are still rare.

Most are directly owned and funded by the central government and local authorities.

It is a setup not unique to China – many are also publicly funded in Germany and Singapore to avoid the influence of special interest groups – but government-funded Chinese think tanks are part of the bureaucracy, with researchers carrying bureaucratic rankings.

This has severely narrowed the field of their policy recommendations – researchers tend to second-guess what the leaders want and form their conclusions accordingly.

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The same can be said of the think tanks at universities that are also funded by the government. One example is that those think tanks value the comments of the government leaders on their internal reports more than having the reports out in the public domain.

As a result, those think tanks have become the mouthpieces of government policies; they rarely criticise any government decision or offer effective alternative solutions and recommendations – something that anyone attending international symposiums and listening to presentations by Chinese researchers can attest to.

The dominance of the government-controlled think tanks has severely restricted the rise of truly non-governmental outlets like the Unirule Institute of Economics, which not only faces funding and regulatory constraints but also risks retribution by publishing politically incorrect reports.

At a time when China is taking up the reins as the champion for globalism, a golden opportunity has emerged for its think tanks to make a mark on the international stage. But for them to succeed, critical thinking and academic freedom are essential so that researchers can produce high-quality reports to gain international credibility and appeal.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper