Over four years ago, the Beijing Review covered China’s think tank “Golden Age.” This Golden Age had been heralded by major policy earlier. Hu Jintao called for improving intellectual support to policy-making, some say leading to a “fourth generation” of think tanks around 2007-2009. Then, in 2012 and 2013, President Xi Jinping and key Communist Party committees called for the buildup of “think tanks with Chinese characteristics.” It caused an explosion of efforts and interest in think tanks, with Chinese scholars investigating the domestic think tank scene, think tanks hosting more events, and the establishment of even more think tanks. The Review noted that “decision-makers have become increasingly open to suggestions from outside sources.”

How was China already at a “fourth generation” of think tanks? After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet model provided the initial template for the “first generation.” (See Sylvia Menegazzi.) These think tanks were all embedded in public institutions, including directly within government, in government-sponsored academies, funded by cities or the military, in universities, etc. Even now, the vast majority of Chinese think tanks have some affiliation to a public entity and are publicly financed. (See Xu Zhufeng and this more recent summary of other work by On Think Tanks.)

There have been more waves of think tank openings (sometimes following periods of closures) since the first generation. The reform period during the 1980s saw particular growth with a focus on advising on reform. More recently there has been interest in promoting “social think tanks” as they are thought to be better at international exchanges. China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE) is the paradigmatic example of this and was founded in 2009.

The recent Golden Age continues today. Chinese think tanks continue to host a myriad of events, including conferences, high level forums and summits.  Think tank commentators generally see these events and associated international visits and exchanges as a mix of public diplomacy, international prestige building exercises, tests for new ways of working, strengthening familiarity with foreign actors for the longer term, and in a few cases, promoting investment and trade.

Key Chinese initiatives also often have their own think tank networks. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), enshrined in China’s constitution last year, has its Silk Road Think Tank Network (eSiLKs), just as Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum. Furthermore, new think tanks continue to be established: the Center for International Knowledge on Development (CIKD) was started in 2017 with a focus on international development issues and the 2030 Agenda.

However, at the same time that Chinese think tanks are being urged to expand and flourish, they are also being asked to follow specific guidance. First, the government has further refined what “Chinese characteristics” means, and it includes having quality research and an international reputation but also promoting China’s positive image and keeping to the tenets of Chinese socialism. Second, starting last year, all think tanks have been directed to associate themselves to a government body, university, or academy of social science to ensure a “dual management” structure.

Overall, thinks tanks face various and competing demands. They have been supported for both domestic and foreign policy reasons, with the government explicitly calling for think tanks to give policy advice but also asking them to help promote China’s model. Think tanks are asked to engage in Track 2 discussions and to pioneer more international exchanges, but at the same time, are directed to stay within a certain ideological framing.

Reports showing the difficulties pop up semi-regularly. Just recently, the South China Morning Post reported that policy-makers were at a loss for advice on trade issues with the United States. Not only are think tankers reportedly self-censoring, but they are directed to keep foreign visits short.

Last year, President Xi announced a “new era” and greater involvement of China on the world stage. Top Chinese think tanks will be expected to play a key role in these efforts. We may see even more networks and events. Thus far, however, we have seen less research collaboration with other think tanks in the Global South in comparison to the number of events.

However, given the multitude of actors and fast-moving situation, this may change. Many think tanks, universities, and multilaterals are engaging in this space from within and outside of China, and there are more and more international networks supporting research, peer-to-peer exchange, and policy-sharing. International affairs, from trade to security, are also increasingly unpredictable for many countries, leading to challenges and opportunities for think tanks. The next blog post will cover some speculation of what may come next for this growing sector.