Last month at the final Think Tank Initiative Exchange in Bangkok, Chinese scholars and think tankers discussed their programming with think tankers from India, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru,Thailand,Tanzania, Ecuador, and Honduras. This parallel session was brought together with the goal of exploring collaborative opportunities with China and Chinese think tanks and it was part of the Think Tank Initiative’s (TTI) capstone event.  The session helped to expand networks, but many TTI think tankers expressed interest in more concrete research and taking collaboration with Chinese organizations to the “next level.”

[Editor’s note: This is the final piece in a blog series on the Rise of Chinese Think Tanks. The first piece was on,"The rise of China...and its think tanks", and the second piece looked at, "The changing role of think tanks in China".]

The panel included representatives from the China Centre for International Economic Exchange (CCIEE), the School of International Governance Innovation at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, and the Institute for Sustainable Development Goals at Tsinghua University, as well as a representative from the Gates Foundation office in China. They discussed their programs and how they are helping to raise awareness among less developed countries about China’s policy priorities. This includes offering training opportunities for government officials and scholarships to attend Chinese universities.

Several of them noted that while they have undertaken extensive engagements with think tanks in the United States and Europe, they had not yet connected as much with think tanks in the Global South. When asked about this, Chinese think tankers noted that there is high interest to engage more now, and the timing is right as China is shifting after 40 years of reform and opening up to focus more on building and learning with Southern partners. The parallel session was therefore a welcome opportunity to expand their networks.

Attendees present then reflected on past experiences and put forward ideas about what could happen in future collaborations—from jointly assessing the social impacts of major infrastructure projects to sharing details of China’s growth model. Overall, there was high interest in more engagement, but there were also many questions on “what” and “how” to move forward. Concrete suggestions were provided (detailed below), including a number of topics for potential research collaboration. In addition, there were questions and reflections on the actual mechanics of collaboration.

Ideas for future research

A diversity of topic areas were raised as ideas for the foundations of future research. One group of topics drew on China’s development experiences over the last 40 years. These topics included: rural-urban migration; understanding how small enterprises can drive national development; fiscal decentralization and expenditure management by local authorities; experiences with separating social security from employment; managing export-led growth; and making development processes inclusive as part of efforts, in SDG parlance, to “Leave No One Behind.”

The second group of research topics related to China’s engagement externally. There was significant interest in looking at the social and environmental impacts of large infrastructure projects and ways to make Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related investments better account for these dimensions. Regional connectivity issues and the implications of major investments for countries bordering China were also of interest to think tanks from Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

How can we work together?

In order for Southern think tanks to engage with Chinese think tanks and government institutions, there are some practical challenges that must be overcome. The first issue raised by session participants was on funding—always a concern for non-governmental think tanks. The fast evolving nature of China’s development cooperation appears to offer up new opportunities in this regard. The Gates Foundation representative noted that the South-South Cooperation Fund was open to applications from foreign NGOs, including think tanks, and that its objectives included “soft” development issues like social and environmental questions. He also noted that Chinese think tanks themselves are being pushed to fundraise more, so they may not have the resources to provide funding in joint projects.

On a more practical level, language also appears to be a challenge. Some Chinese government and think tank resources are not available in English, Spanish, or other languages, and the working knowledge of Chinese is low amongst think tanks outside of China. In addition, there was a general admission that think tankers lacked knowledge of how things work in China, including how to move forward partnerships and build longer term relationships. Some noted that they appreciated meetings like this but were still stumped about how to advance collaboration ideas.

Concluding Thoughts: Expect More Connections

Many parties from within and outside of China are interested in working together. They also recognize that there is not a well-trod path laid out for how to do it. Some of the challenges are financial, which may be the easiest to solve. Some of the challenges may be about mutual understanding, which may lessen over time with continued engagement across countries.

However, other barriers may be harder to overcome, including differing roles for think tanks in other countries compared to China and some limitations on what could be jointly studied. Some of the issues related to regional connectivity may be considered too sensitive by some, but they also appear to be fitting issues for Track 2-like discussions. In addition, some issues may be low priority or less studied in Chinese think tanks, including ways to address the social development impact of infrastructure.

Overall, we are willing to wager that in five years’ time, we will see more and deeper connections between Chinese think tanks and those in other developing countries. They may grow out of universities and the resulting student networks as more foreign students study in Chinese degree programs. We also speculate that they will focus more on areas where Chinese think tankers see opportunity to share the China model, such as in agricultural development.

Background Note

The previous two blogs in this series have highlighted recent developments in China of interest to think tanks – in particular the growth of think tanks in China and their evolving role in the projection of Chinese soft power. It was these changes that led Andrew to visit China in the first instance (first blog), and it was on the basis of connections made there that led to a session at the recent Think Tank Exchange in Bangkok.