China's Quest for Global Influence - Through Think Tanks
Scholars at a WTO forum on China-Africa economic relations (Oct. 2014)

China's Quest for Global Influence - Through Think Tanks


China is seeking to boost its soft power by developing “a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics,” Xinhua reported on Tuesday, citing new guidelines from the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and the State Council (China Copyright and Media has an English translation of the entire Party document). The main goal is to have “several think tanks wielding major global influence” by 2020.

How do China’s think tanks rank so far? The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania provides an annual ranking of over 6,500 think tanks worldwide. According to their 2013 report, the U.S. accounted for three of the top five think tanks worldwide (with the other two being located in the U.K. and Sweden) and six of the top ten. China, meanwhile, has its top-ranked think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, ranked 20th in the world.

Overall, China has only three think tanks in the top 50 worldwide (in addition to CASS, the Chinese Institute of International Studies comes in at 36 and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations ranks 44th). Again, that’s the same number the U.S. has in the top five. Even when the category is restricted to “think tanks in China, India, Japan, and the Republic of Korea,” China’s CIIS and CASS lose out to the Korea Development Institute and the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

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Small wonder, then, that Beijing is seeking to boost the international prestige of its think tanks. China has long sought soft power commensurate with its growing economic and political clout. Think tanks are important both as a measure of soft power and as a channel for increasing global influence. As the newly released CCP guidelines state, “Think tanks are an important carrier of national soft power; they are becoming an increasingly important factor in international competition and have an irreplaceable role in international relations.” Yet in China, the guidelines continue, “There are no high-end think tanks with major influence and global prestige; research results are limited; resources are not appropriately allocated and there are few prominent leading figures.”

China’s prescription encourages specialization, with the hopes that will allow more think tanks to make the transition to “high end think tanks.” The CCP is particularly interested in “strategic issues and public policies,” according to Xinhua.

Beijing also tells think tanks to increase global interactions, by inviting foreign experts to join Chinese research institutions and also by increasing international cooperation with other think tanks, including establishing branches of Chinese institutions in other countries. That’s an interesting recommendation, considering China’s disciplinary watchdog accused CASS of being “infiltrated by foreign forces” last June. Such accusations may make other Chinese think tanks reconsider programs that call for increased foreign exchanges. China will need to clear up its mixed messaging here before the plan can be implemented.

In remodeling its think tanks, China is not just seeking increased global influence, although that’s clearly a major goal. Beijing also wants Chinese think tanks to support “the Party and government in making policy and decisions.” The guidelines noted that “when looking at the modernization and development history of various countries in the present world, think tanks have played an increasingly important role in national governance.” Chinese think tanks should play a similar role, the document says, in helping to advise on policy decisions. That goal will likely be helped by tentative steps being taken in China to offer government positions to academics.

At the same time, however, the guidelines were quite clear on the limits that remain on China’s research institutions. “Think tanks should stick to Marxist ideology [and] follow the CCP’s leadership,” the guidelines insisted. Those two points will inevitably limit the scope of scholarship at Chinese think tanks, and make it unlikely that China’s researchers will feel comfortable making truly bold policy recommendations. It will also, fairly or not, continue to taint the image of Chinese think tanks abroad, as Western observers have a tendency to write off Chinese scholarship as government sponsored.

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