The University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program recently published an index that listed 6,681 significant think tanks around the world. The United States had the most with 1,830, China was second with 429 and Britain finished third with 287.
This appears to be something worth celebrating. After all, it was only after 2010 that the various research institutions in China started calling themselves think tanks. But this ranking does not mean the country’s think tanks are among the world’s best.
Most institutions known as think tanks in China are affiliated with governments at various levels. It is only in recent years that a large group of privately run versions have emerged and gained influence.
Think tanks’ differ from ordinary research institutions and consulting firms in that they are professional organizations meant to be influential in the drafting of public policy.
However, most of the Chinese think tanks included on the list are not yet important advisers to policymakers. Many remain subordinate to government agencies and cannot conduct research independently.
Meanwhile, many officials tend to believe that these think tanks are mainly there to expound on their policies rather than provide options for them to consider before formulating new policies.
Most private think tanks, on the other hand, lack full-time research teams and have to rely heavily on the work of already well-recognized experts from outside the organization. The direction of their research and achievements is ultimately not very different from well-established research institutions.
Many government agencies’ internal research offices have much more sway than the think tanks that made Penn’s list with regard to how policies and regulations are formed.
The reasons China does not yet have a think tank comparable with the Rand Corp. or the Brookings Institution are complicated. But the primary one has to do with the undesirability of their research results.
Researchers in think tanks need to be familiar with the process of how policies are made. This process is often long and every step raises different demands for research.
Most Chinese think tanks seem unclear about who their target audience is – their reports all look the same, whether they are for the policymakers, bureaucrats, experts or ordinary people.
Also, it is important that a think tank researcher knows how policies are made so he can provide in-depth analysis regarding the problems each stage might have. If the researcher knows less about the process than policymakers, it is unlikely that he can provide any useful recommendation.
Think tanks should focus on developing more specialized, practical research. In looking through the many different reports that have been published by Chinese think tanks over the years, it seems that the more famous the organization, the more it tends to research macroeconomic activities and glaze over micro issues. The bigger they are the more they omit – and the more likely they are to talk in generalities and repeat each other’s conclusions.
Think tanks most important function is to help formulate policies that can be implemented. The reports of many groups have been a big disappointment when it comes to enforceability.
We have seen all too often that, for example, a think tank says China is missing out on an important opportunity if it does not immediately commit to the development of a very promising technology. It would then suggest that the government strengthen financial support for the technology. If the report was written by a technology expert, reaching this conclusion can serve as the report’s ending, but a think tank should not stop there. It should come up with specific advice regarding where the money should come from.
The central authorities have several channels for financing science and technology projects. They target different sectors, serve different people and are governed by different regulations. A think tank report must be clear which one of the channels is concerned when speaking of increasing funding to a specific technology. If its report mentions tax breaks, it needs to show how this may work under the current tax system.
Moreover, some think tanks have failed to appreciate the importance of drawing a boundary between the government and the market. Their solution for many problems is always as simple as setting up a new regulatory agency and tightening rules. Some advise the government to do what is beyond its budgetary capacity. Others may have underestimated the obstacles of implementing their proposals.
The vast majority of think tanks in China need to be transformed. To become a real mechanism that influences policymaking, they will need to provide answers to big societal problems, and the solutions must be independent, professional, enforceable and constructive.
Fan Bi is the deputy director of the State Council’s General Research Office
(Translated by Roma Eisenstark)