Reflections on the Future Development of China’s Think Tanks
By Sen Gong

Reflections on the Future Development of China’s Think Tanks

Mar. 17, 2023  |     |  0 comments

In recent years, China has supported the development of innovative think tanks that embody Chinese characteristics and high-end think tanks, leading to a phase of rapid growth for the think tank industry. However, the think tank industry faces challenges in fulfilling its duties in policy consultation, policy interpretation, and international communication. In terms of policy consulting, there are two prominent shortcomings or mistakes. First, regarding Sino-US relations, the basic assessment in previous years was "neither good nor bad.” In contrast, the mainstream opinion in recent years considers a high risk of conflict between China and the US. Second concerning the COVID-19 pandemic prevention and control strategies and policy adjustments, think tanks and experts generally remained silent, while a few experts who showed up publicly became objects of ridicule and mockery. Regarding policy interpretation, policymakers have noted in previous years that many experts have lost credibility. In international communication, a senior official in the regulatory department for think tanks once lamented that the US think tanks have good interaction with the government overall. While in China, there is a lack of interaction, and think tanks and their experts face problems of not wanting to speak, not daring to speak, and not knowing how to speak. Therefore, the Chinese think tank industry and supervising bodies in the government need to reflect on these issues together. As such, the issue of "where are the Chinese think tank community heading" is vital and timely.

Scientific rigor is the ethics to which think tank professionals must adhere, and it is a bottom line that must be upheld. Scientific rigor requires adherence to relevant scientific theories and laws, as well as adherence to the dialectical materialism and historical materialism worldview and methodology of seeking truth from facts and distinguishing the positive from the negative. Think tanks should also consider reintegrating resources from different parties and participate in building China's independent knowledge system to provide a more solid support for policy research. Think tank products and services should ensure scientific rigor and proceed according to the "three-circle theory" of decision-making: the "value, capability, and support - analytical framework." The policy recommendations provided must meet public value. The "three-circle theory" holds that the ultimate goal of public policy is to create public value for society. First, good public policies must have public value; second, policy implementors must have certain abilities to provide corresponding management and services; and third, relevant policies need the support from stakeholders or the general public. Thus, the three circles are formed. We can implement the policy and achieve the expected results only when the three circles intersect. Based on ensuring the scientific rigor and public value of policy recommendations, think tank professionals can further analyze the capacities and conditions of policy implementors and the attitudes of stakeholders. However, I believe that not all think tank products need to meet the feasibility standard.

In terms of influence, if we rank from the closest to the furthest, it would be government-affiliated think tanks, university-owned think tanks, and social (or civil) think tanks. Government think tanks have relatively larger impacts on policymaking but are prone to political and bureaucratic tendencies and lack independence. University think tanks enjoy relatively better independence without departmental interests and multiple levels of censorship. Still, their research is not comprehensive enough regarding subjective and objective conditions and stakeholder support, and their operational capacities are slightly weaker. Civil think tanks have strong independence but face issues of unequal treatment and public trust. Overall, university think tanks have obvious advantages among the three types of think tanks, government, university, and civil. Of course, inside universities, think tank researchers have a lower status than teaching faculty, which is also a problem that needs to be addressed and resolved. I will raise some relevant recommendations below.

As for the issue of equal treatment, a simple solution is for decision-makers to equally use and treat different types of think tanks in commissioning and consultation, ensuring the respective representativeness of various think tanks.

Third, performance evaluation is best conducted for the contract period, considering both written comments and instructions from senior officials and peer review, balancing rewards and accountability, and exempting from responsibility while also considering multiple functions.

Regarding the performance assessment cycle, think tanks should have an internal assessment in the first place. Internal assessments cannot be annual, let alone quarterly or semi-annual, and better to combine with the contract period. As for external evaluations, the evaluation cycle of supervising bodies should not be short-term either. Think tanks should be evaluated and compared every three to five years. This can better ensure that think tank products are knowledge-based (primary research) consulting services and ensure the strategic nature of policy research.

Policy impact evaluations can include written comments from senior government officials as assessment indicators but should not solely rely on them to prevent catering to leaders' preferences and causing systematic errors. In addition to those written comments, peer reviews could be organized annually. Appropriate attention should be given to policy analytical reports that have not received comments from the government and even reports with relatively negative comments from the government officials.

The design of the assessment indicators should balance multiple responsibilities, including policy consultation, policy evaluation, and international communication.

Rewards can be granted annually based on the impact of the work. While rewarding, it is also essential to explore the establishment of an accountability system. Accountability must be enforced for those who intentionally or maliciously mislead decision-makers; this could include a ban on providing consulting services or lifelong accountability. Additionally, it is vital to actively promote establishing a "liability exemption" system, encouraging think tank professionals to speak out based on valuing facts and safeguarding public interests, especially in actively participating in international communication.

Regarding the use of think tank evaluation indicators and results, relevant evaluations should be included in the assessment of the Ministry of Education and other related institutions to alleviate the problem of the relatively low status of university think tank personnel compared to teaching staff.

Fourth, we must adhere to the principle of openness and transparency while protecting the legitimate rights and interests of think tank professionals.

In principle, except for national security issues, policy consultation reports provided by think tanks and expert forums attended for major administrative decision-making must be open and transparent. Here, expert forums are taken as an example to illustrate this point. It is necessary to ensure that the expert group and each member have complete autonomy in expressing their opinions. The expert group's views should reflect the overall opinions of the experts, but not necessarily unanimous opinions. At the same time, per the Outline for Comprehensive Promotion of Law-based Administration of the State Council, except for matters that should be kept confidential by law, decision-making matters, basis, and results should be made public, and the public has the right to access them. To strengthen experts' professional and social supervision, the organizers should disclose the basis for selecting the expert group and its members and each expert’s opinions after the decision is passed.

At the same time, in an environment where anti-intellectual behavior is rampant on the internet, if experts safeguard public interests and fulfill their responsibilities lawfully and scientifically, relevant departments must prevent some netizens from engaging in improper personal attacks such as "cyber violence" against them.