Frustrated by the quality of the advice he was receiving, the first Song emperor of China had an idea. The tenth-century ruler, it is said, promised that officials would not be executed for disagreeing with him. President Xi Jinping appears to be testing a less flamboyant remedy to a similar problem. To ensure a supply of diverse opinions, even as public debates face strict controls, Mr Xi is encouraging a boom in “think-tanks with Chinese characteristics”.
State-funded think-tanks, many of them serving individual ministries or Communist Party bodies, have long existed in China. But recent years have seen a flourishing of think-tanks that eschew direct state sponsorship. Some are privately funded foundations, or attached to universities. Others register as private consulting firms, bringing both flexibility and vulnerability.
The boom throws up puzzles. In the West, measuring clout is easy. When a Democrat wins the White House, a flotilla of progressive wonks bobs across Washington from places like the Brookings Institution to join the government. When a Republican is elected, conservative wonks who share the winner’s politics take their turn— hard-edged partisan think-tanks have hit the jackpot under President Donald Trump. In Europe, think-tanks send staff into government as special advisers and work to shape public debate. Assessing influence is harder in China, where the revolving door is one-way: officials may retire into think-tanks, but seldom return to government. And the party in power never changes.
In China, real influence is rarely wielded in public. Among researchers, the term neibu (“internal”) is used a lot. Each day, favoured think-tanks and universities send policy papers via neibu channels to Mr Xi and other leaders. If he reads a paper, or—a high honour—scrawls a note in its margins, aides send word to its authors, casting a roseate glow over all involved. Well-connected think-tanks send staff to internal government and party meetings. Behind closed doors, their scholars weigh in on big, divisive questions. An example is the Belt and Road Initiative, a scheme to connect the world with railway lines, telecommunications networks and other infrastructure. Some think-tanks argue that China gains by funding and controlling the project. Others call it a financial and diplomatic burden that should be shared with other countries. During the trade war with America, scholars have been summoned to advise on the wording of Chinese government announcements. Smart think-tanks prepare public and neibu versions of papers. They are also asked by officials to advance arguments that bigwigs prefer not to make aloud. Distrust any policy wonk who claims to speak for a grandee, though, says a prominent researcher. “If he is really close to those vvvips, he cannot tell you.”
Chaguan asked the heads of some very different think-tanks about another puzzle: that proximity to power is good for prestige but bad for credibility, especially in an autocracy. Diplomats and foreign analysts call the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (cicir) the country’s shrewdest foreign-policy think-tank, despite (or perhaps because of) its links to the deep state. With over 200 scholars following both individual countries and broad questions of national security, cicir’s leafy campus resembles a small university. Paramilitary guards and massive gates hint at cicir’s (unacknowledged) affiliation with the Ministry of State Security, China’s main intelligence service. cicir’s president, Yuan Peng, notes that Western think-tanks use punchy phrases and attack politicians for past blunders. cicir uses “subtle” language to describe present realities accurately and to offer constructive suggestions about the future, he says. Mr Yuan accepts no lessons about objectivity from the West, calling American think-tanks beholden to rich ideologues: “Western think-tanks are independent from government, but not from interest groups.”
Wang Huiyao leads the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think-tank that promotes free trade and greater opening to the world. Mr Wang is proud that his “independent” think-tank is funded by Chinese entrepreneurs and companies, not the state. But he is an outsider with neibu access, serving as an appointed adviser to the State Council, or cabinet, and as vice-chairman of a group that seeks to influence foreign-educated Chinese, the Western Returned Scholars Association. Today’s China may not allow political competition, but it has opened a door to “political-proposal competition”, he argues.
The Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, which is backed by private donors but attached to Renmin University, an elite academy in Beijing, is headed by Wang Wen, a rising star on what might be dubbed the Make China Great Again right. He downplays his rumoured access to powerful folk, insisting that Chinese leaders consult widely, gathering opinions “like bees collect nectar”. The institute’s walls are thick with framed photographs of foreign dignitaries, for favoured think-tanks also do quasi-diplomatic work.
Sending honest scholars into exile: a long tradition
True independence brings costs. The Unirule Institute for Economics, founded in 1993 by distinguished liberal reformers, is under siege. It currently perches in a small apartment in north Beijing, down a hallway crowded with bicycles and buckets of yellowing vegetables. The government last year cancelled the business licence of one of its sponsoring entities, after Unirule criticised policies that favour state monopolies and hamper private firms. Authorities say its fault was hosting training courses without an educational permit. Its director, Sheng Hong, was until January a member of Chinese Economists 50 Forum, a body closely linked to Liu He, a deputy prime minister who is Mr Xi’s chief economic adviser. Mr Sheng says forum members feel they are offering advice to national leaders. But access comes with “invisible limitations”. Too often, sensitive subjects are not raised, he says.
Wise emperors understood this. Diverse opinions may provoke autocratic rulers. What really hurts is the advice they never hear.