In June, Communist Party officials accused the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, famously devoted to the study of Marxism-Leninism, of hosting "foreign forces" and lacking loyalty to the party.
In early September, three of China’s most famous universities vowed to strengthen ideological control over students and teachers, while rumors of a new wave of repression against NGOs continue to arrive from Guangdong, the province that first opened its doors to the West almost 200 years ago.
That puts into question aspirations on the part of President Xi Jinping, who was quoted in October as saying that "intellectual resources are the most important for a nation, playing a crucial role in governing a country successfully. The more arduous the reform, the more intellectual support is needed."
Xi appealed to all government departments and even non-governmental ones to develop a new generation of think tanks – but led by the Communist Party and tasked to “adhere to correct direction. They should also demonstrate Chinese characteristics and style."
Can such a rigid system build the intellectually stimulating and effective system of intellectual inquiry that Xi appears to want in these circumstances? It is a troubling question. According to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, China has the the largest number of think tanks in the world after the United States, but none can compare to Western ones such as the Rand Corporation and the Brookings Institution in the US. Only six ranked among the top 100 worldwide in the report, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences highest placed at 20th. How long it can hold that position in the current atmosphere is debatable.
That manifests itself in high tech as well as governance. In August, Peter Fuhrman, Chairman, Founder & CEO of China First Capital, wrote in a report that “For all the hype, the government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As a banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But I see no concrete evidence of a major change underway.”
Intellectually rigorous research is an oxymoron in regimented society. Singapore has been attempting to do so for decades and largely has failed. The country’s education system, despite the money spent, continues to be criticized for its lack of innovation. And Singapore is far more technically advanced than China.
This is not the first time that Xi has urged the establishment of new types of think tanks. At the 2013 Third Plenum, a year after the political reshuffle that brought him to power, Xi raised the need to "create a think tank with Chinese characteristics, to help improve the decision-making in the formulation of public policy."
Nicoletta Ferro, an Italian expert on sustainability in China, commented on her blog a few months ago: "It is the first time that [Chinese government] has made explicit reference to the two terms 'country's governing system' and 'governing capabilities' that correspond to our concept of government of the country as a single entity and governance of relations between a number of social and economic actors."
China, she says, is facing new imperative: "There is talk of think tanks' independence from the government as a necessary perspective (perhaps to get rid of the deadly embrace of vested interests that traditionally influence policy making and implementation) and the possibility that they may learn from those existing in other countries."
The willingness to strengthen the think tanks is combined with the idea of a "modernized governance," a concept that has not yet been officially defined, but which – according to the South China Morning Post – would seem to allude to practices currently in use in Western countries: transparency, accountability and effective policy formulation combined with an efficient implementation. All requirements become necessary to tackle challenges from an increasingly complex economic, social and political development environment.
In the 1950s think tanks existed in the form of rigid networks modeled on Soviet research and inextricably linked to specific ministries. Thirty years later, the need to keep pace with the rapid rise of China has facilitated the emergence of a "new generation." The Chinese establishment started to need advice and options less empirical and ideological, more innovative and in step with the growing global trends.
But if on the one hand the recognition of a certain autonomy was essential to ensure genuinely innovative products, on the other hand the leadership did not hide its opposition to creating overly independent institutions with the risk of losing control of them.
"The major think tank was born and grew up, in many cases, as emanations of informal groups of opinion centered on an important leader and formed by a number of intellectuals linked to him, reflecting a strong dose of customization of the structure,” wrote Giulio Einaudi in his book China in the 21st Century [Cina, ventunesimo secolo].
After the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, existing networks were disbanded and silenced to be replaced, once the crisis was over, by a "third generation" less tied to ministerial structures and dynamics of patronage.
Beijing felt the need to strengthen key areas such as economic policy and international finance. Meanwhile interest groups linked to the business world, began to perceive greater economic and sociopolitical pluralism as a chance to influence public opinion and official policy.
Li Wei, the Minister for the Development Research Center of China’s state council, its top governing body, said in a report that think tanks lag behind because “there is no institutional guarantee for think tanks as an important part of China's soft power; second, their influence on national policy is unstable; third, because most Chinese think tanks are fully or partially government-funded, they find it difficult to do independent policy research; fourth, they need to improve research quality in view of their insufficient role in strategic planning and studies, and they need a better connection between research results and policy-making for social benefits; and, finally, there are many institutional obstacles in the way of Chinese think tank development, such as training suitable people, funding, and reasonable salaries."
Hence the need to create a new kind of institution to improve communication between the PRC and the rest of the world. The standoff between the two largest economies crossed into the cultural sphere five years ago, when China began to consider shaking off its reputation as the world's factory by exporting values and entertainment with Chinese characteristics.
It seems that Beijing now feels the need to stimulate the metamorphosis by promoting an upgrade of its institutions in the hope of making them competitive even by American standards. Given the emphasis placed by Xi on a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" on the global stage, experts expect a lift in research spending in a distinctly nationalist direction.
In the meantime, according to a Hoover Institution study, China should start benefiting from the return of young people trained abroad (the so-called hai gui) who "find think tanks to be ideal institutional springboards from which to reintegrate into the Chinese political establishment and play a role in shaping the public discourse."
Their experience away from home -- in most cases in the United States – is all China thinks it needs to make its soft power more attractive to foreign audiences. It is still unclear, however, how modernization can be reconciled with the party’s authoritarian predilections, especially considering the recent crackdown on academic freedom.
Alessandra Colarizi is an Italian freelance journalist working in China