The South China Morning Post reports that an influential Chinese think-tank has come under fire from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Chinese Communist Party body responsible for investigating corruption and other illegal actions among Party cadres. Citing remarks made by Zhang Yingwei, the CCDI official tasked with overseeing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), SCMP reports that CASS has been accused of being “infiltrated by foreign forces.”
Zhang’s comments were specifically made during remarks before a modern Chinese history research institute. In an online summary of his remarks, Zhang warned of “illegal collusion during sensitive times” between CASS and “foreign forces.” Zhang also warned that CASS had developed “ideological problems” and criticized CASS researchers for, among other things, going online to promote unorthodox viewpoints on sensitive topics. Zhang urged CASS to “remain alert to some politically sensitive issues,” effectively demanding that its researchers do a better job of self-censorship.
Interestingly, the summary of Zhang’s comments was removed within a day of being posted online, perhaps indicating that his accusations do not represent the views of the Party as a whole. Still, talk of “ideological problems” within one of China’s highest-profile think-tanks could reflect Xi’s new emphasis on correct ideology and “core socialist values.”
As Zach, Ankit, and I discussed on last week’s podcast, Xi Jinping has re-elevated ideological purity as a core concern of the CCP. In part, this reflects a deep-seated concern that an influx of Western values, from the idea of universal values to calls for constitutional democracy, will have a corrosive effect on China’s political system. In this context, it’s unsurprising that an influential think-tank that regularly publishes recommendations on China’s economic and social policies would come under fire for being too chummy with “foreign forces.”
Still, CASS seems like an unlikely target for a crackdown. It is far from independent; the president of the organization is always a high-ranking Party official, who is at least a member of the CCP Central Committee. Current President Wang Weiguang certainly shouldn’t have any problems with orthodoxy —he spent 10 years as a high-ranking official at the Central Party School. Plus, many more CCP officials have served a stint in CASS as researcher or students (including Wang Qishan, the current head of CCDI). Experts from CASS also routinely provide comments for Chinese media stories, where they lend academic support to China’s official positions on domestic and international issues.
However, The Economist’s Gady Epstein noted earlier this year that CASS, precisely because it is so public and open, may have less influence at top levels than other, more private (and Party-controlled) organizations. Media interviews and white papers are helpful for letting the public understanding Chinese academic arguments, but apparently CCP leaders rely on more secretive sources for their policy recommendations.
CASS also places a major emphasis on foreign exchanges, which might be what has the CCP worried. By the think-tank’s own description, “conducting broad international academic exchanges remains one of CASS’s guidelines.” Exchanges, conferences, and other events are routine for CASS researchers, and the think-tank also hosts foreign scholars as well. The CCDI apparently believes that this close contact between CASS and foreign institutions has created an atmosphere of corruption and collusion.
In some ways, this may merely be the mirror image of Western (particularly U.S.) unease with Chinese researchers, who are often broadly painted as either CCP spies or propaganda hacks. With high levels of mistrust between China and the U.S. in general, joint research projects face more and more suspicion from both sides. However, Zhang accused CASS not only of corruption and “collusion” with foreign forces, but of “ideological problems,” implying that the heart of the problem is that CASS is not toeing the CCP line closely enough.
Zhang’s comments represent a backlash against what has been a period of relatively greater freedoms for China’s think-tanks. In recent years academic research institutions have proliferated, sometimes with the CCP’s explicit blessing. As part of this trend, China has seen more open debate on domestic and foreign policy issues, though always within the bounds of political acceptability. Now Zhang’s remarks hint that those boundaries may be narrowing.
The underlying message of Zhang’s remarks is that Chinese researchers are not allowed to promote opinions on “sensitive issues” if those opinions also happen to also be held by Western scholars. In effect, China is placing restrictions on its academics at precisely the time when Beijing most needs innovative ideas on how to complete China’s economic rebalance while dealing with social issues from the rural-urban divide to religious extremism.