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China’s New Think Tanks: Where Officials, Entrepreneurs, and Scholars Interact

Cheng Li

Introduction

Never in the 60-year history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have Chinese political, economic, and cultural elites paid as much attention to think tanks as they have this year.1 In March the State Council approved the founding of a new think tank in Beijing, the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), and it immediately attained the moniker “super think tank” (chaoji zhiku).2 Former Vice- Premier Zeng Peiyan, a political heavyweight, took up the role of chairman, and several current or former ministerial-level officials, prominent business leaders, and internationally renowned scholars were appointed vice-chairmen.

Four months later, the CCIEE organized an international conference on the global financial crisis and the role of think tanks in promoting international cooperation on issues of global importance. This so-called “Global Think Tank Summit” attracted approximately 900 attendees. Among them were 150 former or current government leaders (Chinese and foreign), officials from such international organizations as the World Bank and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, about 450 scholars and think tank representatives from the world over, roughly 200 businesspeople, and 150 journalists.3 China’s top leaders were among those who made their presence felt at the conference, with Premier Wen Jiabao on hand to meet with distinguished guests and Executive Vice-Premier Li Keqiang delivering a keynote address. For almost a week, Chinese media outlets covered this event widely as part of the headline news.4

The CCIEE is not the only think tank in China that has engaged in high-profile policy discussions or facilitated broad international exchanges in recent years. The academic association known as the Chinese Economists 50 Forum (Zhongguo jingji wushiren luntan), which includes the country’s 50 most prominent economists and government technocrats, is scheduled to conduct an intensive dialogue in late August with leading American economists on measures to promote economic recovery on the global scale. Similarly, the China Institute of Strategy and Management (Zhongguo zhanlue yu guanli yanjiuhui), headed by one of China’s leading strategic thinkers, Zheng Bijian, will host a conference called the “Strategic Forum for a U.S.-China Clean Energy Partnership” in the fall. Both events are co-sponsored by a leading American think tank, the Brookings Institution, and both will be held in the Diaoyutai State House in Beijing. As was the case at the CCIEE summit, top Chinese leaders are expected to attend and speak at these engagements.

In contrast to many of their counterparts in the West, where independence from the government is usually seen as a mark of credibility, Chinese think tanks often strive for strong ties to the government, and especially value a close connection with the upper stratum of the Chinese leadership. According to its charter, the CCIEE is to operate “under the guidance and supervision of the National Development and Reform Commission [NDRC] in terms of its business scope.”5 The NDRC, whose purview is the macroeconomic management of the Chinese economy, is widely considered to be the most important ministry in the Chinese government. Another indicator of the CCIEE’s close ties to the Chinese leadership is its physical proximity to the levers of power—its current office is located only a few hundred meters from Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of both the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council. 6

The growing importance of think tanks in China and the frequency with which they are able to facilitate international exchanges is understandable within the context of China’s rise on the world stage. Many Chinese people are now conscious that their country is not only in the midst of profound socioeconomic transformations, but is also rapidly emerging as a major player in global affairs. They wish to understand the complex and internationally intertwined challenges that China faces in order to take intelligent positions on the issues involved.

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