In the past few years, we’ve seen an amazing increase in the number of networks and events initiated by Chinese think tanks. These go well beyond long-standing platforms associated with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the BRICS. Since 2013, there’s been a boom in the number of think tanks in China and a massive increase in the knowledge that has been generated by these organizations.  Their efforts range from exploring the functions of think tanks and finding ways to rate their work to supporting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and evaluating global governance. There is also indication of an increase in private and public resources being devoted to Chinese think tanks.

TTI wanted to learn more about these developments – particularly how this could affect the funding ecosystem for think tanks worldwide.  To explore this emerging sector, TTI’s Program Leader, Andrew Hurst, headed to China to attend the Third China Global Think Tank Innovation Forum hosted by the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) and the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Project at the University of Pennsylvania. Once there, he connected with notable Chinese academics and think tanks and learned that China is keen to share its development experiences with the world, and equally, to gain knowledge on how to tackle some of the challenges that have arisen because of its success.

To reflect on this growing sector and the effects it might have on thinks tanks around the world, Andrew sat down with international affairs expert, Jenny Lah, to discuss some of the insights gained from his time in China.


[Editor’s note: This piece is the first in a blog series on the Rise of Chinese Think Tanks. This post includes an interview led by Jenny Lah - an independent consultant with 15 years of experience working in international development and social sector management. She has expertise in China’s foreign policy and lived in Beijing for two years.]


Jenny: How was the conference? How many Chinese think tankers, academics, and experts did you meet with?

Andrew: We met or had a chance to chat with over two dozen think tankers and other experts, including through CCG’s Forum. We mostly stayed in Beijing but tried to meet with diverse think tanks, including those based at universities and in government.

The conference itself included a panel discussion titled “China and International Think Tanks: Cooperation and Innovation in a Globalizing World’, which I sat on. It matched one major trend we’ve seen with Chinese think tanks, which is a strong push to promote international exchanges. It’s not just TTI being invited either—many TTI think tanks have been participating in events for years. Just recently, the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) 2018 Forum on Africa was attended by TTI think tanks CSEA from Nigeria and IPAR from Senegal.

Jenny: Right. Many Chinese think tanks are establishing their own forums, including some with individual countries or with regions. In addition to the major FOCAC think tank network, there is also SiLKs and 16+1 China and Central and Eastern European Countries think tanks network. There are also meetings with thinks tanks from specific countries too: India and Nepal, for example. In some cases, it seems like the think tank efforts are creating a kind of Track 2 dialogue to a Chinese initiative.  Some think that part of the recent boom is to ensure that China, through Chinese think tanks, has a strong voice in Track 2 forums, such as the Think 20.

Back to the conference - I heard that your panel talk was well-received, and you are now a published author in Chinese!

Andrew: My panel talk was on “soft infrastructure” because I wanted to connect China’s support to hard infrastructure to the idea that they should consider more flexible support to think tank partners. I also blended it with the term “soft power,” which your research had indicated is an explicit reason why China is supporting its own think tanks and working with others.

TTI’s mission includes promoting core support, so I took the opportunity to give voice to the idea. I was then approached to have it translated and published, and it is available on the Chinese Social Sciences Net here.

Jenny: What were some of the other takeaways from your trip?

Andrew: My first takeaway is that in the past, many Chinese think tanks concentrated their outreach and collaboration with think tanks in Europe and the US. But this is changing. Many think tanks are now involved in sharing the Chinese experience and facilitating Chinese engagement with less developed countries. Former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin’s Institute for New Structural Economics is an example of a center that does this kind of work.

Jenny: Over this last year of research, we’ve been seeing how fast things are moving regarding China’s work with think tanks domestically and abroad. There are more and more partnerships, networks, and events.

Andrew: You definitely get the impression that this is a dynamic time as Chinese entities and think tanks pilot new ways of working. My sense is that this is just beginning. But this prompts many questions. What are the engagement models for think tanks in other countries?  We do know a few cases of collaborative research that were undertaken on the basis of mutual interest in specific subjects. TTI partners EDRI in Ethiopia and CPR in India have both done that.

Jenny: And we have heard of models that were more like Chinese banks and government entities seeking to commission analysis of investments or investment environments too. This is more of a consulting model that can be tricky for think tanks to navigate and keep their independence, no matter who is trying to commission them.

Andrew: How such collaboration might evolve in the context of broader foreign policy frameworks like the BRI remains to be seen. The scope for think tanks in BRI countries to shape and influence the nature and direction of Chinese influence is unclear, and Chinese think tanks no doubt face pressure to ease relationships with governments in these countries.

Jenny: Lots to think about! Thanks for sharing a bit on your trip Andrew. The next post provides readers a bit more background on Chinese think tanks and recent policy developments in China, and then I look forward to more of your forecasts in the third blog.