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Government Advisors or Public Advocates? Roles of Think Tanks in China from the Perspective of Regional Variations*

  • Xufeng Zhu (a1)

Think tanks in China simultaneously play advisory, academic and advocacy roles in the policy process. In this article, I recommend an analytical framework that evaluates think tanks by studying their specific activities in addition to their nature. Empirical data involving 301 think tanks in 25 provinces were collected through the China Think Tank Survey 2004. The 1998 regional Integrated Knowledge Development Index database was also used for the analysis. Based on these two independent sets of survey data, the article concludes that connections with the government and knowledge capacity in regions where think tanks are located are the two differing forces that drive China's think tanks to operate as either advisors or advocates. Moreover, these two determinants differentially influence the individual roles of the two types of think tanks.

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1 Bourdieu, Pierre, Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 165.

2 Zhifei Wu, “Hu Angang: rezhong yu zhishi baoguo” (“Angang Hu: full of enthusiasm about contributing to the state with knowledge”), Remin ribao (haiwai ban) (People's Daily (Overseas Edition)), 17 December 2008, p. 7. Professor Angang Hu is a well-known scholar who is director of the Centre for China Study, Tsinghua University.

3 Bonnin, Michel and Chevrier, Yves, “The intellectual and the state: social dynamics of intellectual autonomy during the post-Mao era,” The China Quarterly, No. 127 (1991), pp. 569–93.

4 Sleeboom-Faulkner, Margaret, “Regulating intellectual life in China: the case of the Chinese academy of social sciences,” The China Quarterly, No. 189 (2007), pp. 8399.

5 Glaser, Bonnie S. and Saunders, Phillip C.Chinese civilian foreign policy research institutes: evolving roles and increasing influence,” The China Quarterly, No. 171 (2002), pp. 597616; Naughton, Barry, “China's economic think tanks: their changing role in the 1990s,” The China Quarterly, No. 171 (2002), pp. 625–35; Ming-Chen, Shai and Stone, Diane, “The Chinese tradition of policy research institutes,” in Stone, Diane and Denham, Andrew (eds.), Think Tank Traditions: Policy Research and the Politics of Ideas (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), pp. 141–62; Ueno, Makiko, “Northeast Asian think tanks: toward building capacity for more democratic societies,” in McGann, James and Weaver, Kent R. (eds.), Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000), pp. 221–43.

6 For example, the Unirule Institute of Economics (Tianze), founded by Mao Yushi and other economists in Beijing in 1993, used to be regarded as one of the most critical non-governmental think tanks in China. However, it conducted many government research projects, including those consigned by government agencies such as the Ministry of Construction, Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform, and bureaucracies in Shenzhen and Foshan (

7 A recent significant example is a 2005 report of the Development Research Centre of the State Council highlighting the failure of health policy reforms. The report was widely cited by the mass media (e.g. Wang Junxiu. “Guowuyuan yanjiu jigou cheng woguo yigai gongzuo jiben bu chenggong” (“Research Institute of State Council announces that China's health policy reform is almost a failure”), Zhongguo qingnian bao (China Youth Daily), 29 July 2005). The incident eventually resulted in a new round of healthcare policy reforms throughout the country.

8 For details of the test of representativeness, see Zhu, Xufeng, “Zhongguo zhengce jingying de shehui ziben: jiyu jiegou zhuyi shijiao de fenxi” (“Social capital of Chinese policy elites: an analysis in the view of structuralism”), Shehuixue yanjiu (Sociological Studies), No. 4 (2006), pp. 86116, appendix A.

9 World Bank, World Development Report 1998/99: Knowledge for Development (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

10 Hu, Angang and Xiong, Yizhi, “Zhongguo de changyuan weilai yu zhishi fazhan zhanlue” (“China's long future and the strategy of knowledge development”), Zhongguo shehui kexue (Social Science in China), No. 2 (2003), pp. 126–37.

11 Zhu, Xufeng and Xue, Lan, “Think tanks in transitional China,” Public Administration and Development, Vol. 27, No. 5 (2007), p. 453.

12 Fewsmith, Joseph, China since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

13 Tanner, Murray S., “Changing windows on a changing China: the evolving ‘think tank’ system and the case of the public security sector,” The China Quarterly, No. 171 (2002), pp. 559–74.

14 Ogden, Suzanne, “From patronage to profits: the changing relationship of Chinese intellectuals with the party-state,” in Goldman, Merle and Gu, Edward (eds.), Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 111–37.

15 China's regulations for social organizations stipulate that each registered CNPI must be affiliated with a supervising unit endorsing its legitimacy. Supervising units can be government agencies or agencies authorized by the government. In some cases, think tanks have difficulty finding a supervising agency. They have to be registered as “companies,” although they mainly engage in non-profit activities.

16 Zhu and Xue, “Think tanks in transitional China,” p. 454. The authors interviewed four think tanks, showing the diversity of funding sources.

17 Liu, Yuanli and Rao, Keqin, “Providing health insurance in rural China: from research to policy,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, Vol. 31, No. 1 (2006), pp. 7192.

19 All collective study events of the Political Bureau of the CCP Central Committee are listed in The Political Bureau invited not only experts from government-sponsored think tanks, but also professors and researchers from think tanks affiliated within universities.

20 Yanhui, Chen, “Neican jiemi” (“Discovery of internal references”), Fenghuang zhoukan (Phoenix Weekly), 23 July 2005.

21 Zheng, Yongnian, Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).

22 Abelson, Donald E., Do Think Tanks Matter? Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2002).

23 Zhu, Xufeng, “The influence of think tanks in the contemporary Chinese policy process: different ways and mechanisms,” Asian Survey, Vol. 49, No. 2 (2009), pp. 333–57.

24 Goldman and Gu, Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market. A number of contributors in this volume examine the effect of market, pluralization or liberalization, and change of public sphere on China's intellectuals.

25 Walder, Andrew G., “Markets and inequality in transitional economies: toward testable theories,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 101, No. 4 (1996), pp. 1062–63.

26 Edward Gu and Merle Goldman, “Introduction,” in Goldman and Gu, Chinese Intellectuals Between State and Market, p. 8.

27 World Bank, World Development Report 1998/99, pp. 2–3.

28 Indexes in Hu–Xiong's IKDI system include “acquiring knowledge” (per capita international paper indexed in three major citation indexes, per capita number of national patent, and per capita foreign direct investment); “absorbing knowledge” (average years of education, enrolment rate of primary education, per capita students in middle schools, and per capita students in colleges); and “communicating knowledge” (per capita subscription of newspapers, telephone penetration rate, and per capita internet users). Hu, Angang and Xiong, Yizhi, “Woguo zhishi fazhan de diqu chayi fenxi: tedian, chengyin ji duice” (“An analysis of area gaps in China's knowledge development: their characteristics, roots thereof, and our policies”), Guanli shijie (Management World), No. 3 (2000), pp. 517.

29 Wang, Shaoguang, “Changing models of China's policy agenda setting,” Modern China, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2008), p. 68.

31 Available at

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the Harvard Fairbank Center Seminar in 2008. I would like to thank Xue Lan, Elizabeth Perry, Anthony Saich, Merle Goldman, Alasdair Roberts, Cheng Siwei, Zhu Guanglei and Danial Guttman for their valuable comments, and Zhang Jing'an, Luo Hui and Zhao Gang at the Ministry of Science and Technology of China for their help with the nationwide survey of China's think tanks. I would also like to thank the New Century Excellent Talents Support Program of the Ministry of Education of China (NCET-08-0303) and the Management Science Program of National Natural Sciences Foundation of China (70973058) for sponsorship.

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