In a bid to improve China's research power and offer more advice for the country's development, the Ministry of Education (MOE) released a plan on February 10 to promote think tanks in Chinese universities.
From 2008 to 2013, research institutions in Chinese universities participated in about 600 projects for national ministries and provided 1,600 consulting reports for the Chinese government, according to a report released Friday on the MOE website.
Universities have advantages that can help in developing think tanks and contributing to policymaking, but there are not yet enough influential think tanks in Chinese universities, the report said.
For example, Renmin University of China's Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies has been involved with economic and financial reform since it was founded in January 2013. The institue has released more than 100 research reports and provided 14 proposal reports to the central government, according to its website.
The Chinese military also has its own think tanks covering various fields.
According to a global think tank report released on January 22 by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the International Relations Program of the University of Pennsylvania, there were 6,826 think tanks in the world as of August 2013.
China ranked second with 426 think tanks, behind the US, which had 1,828, according to the TTCSP report.
However, think tanks in China face strong competition, both from local government advisory bodies and from overseas consulting firms.
According to the TTCSP report, five Chinese think tanks ranked in the top 100 in the world in 2013: the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS); the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR); the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS); the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies; and the Development Research Center of the State Council.
Chinese think tanks can be categorized as official ones and non-official ones, Beijing-based China Economic Weekly reported on February 18, with the two kinds playing significantly different roles.
The CASS, a national academy founded in 1977, is a research center covering areas such as philosophy, religion, history, law, economics, international relations and regional development. The provinces also have their own social sciences academies studying similar fields.
China's central government released a document in 2004, calling for development of social sciences and for regional social sciences academies to focus on local development.
Before 2004, provincial social sciences academies had mainly focused on theoretical research.
After the document was released, provincial social sciences academies positioned themselves as local governments' think tanks, providing support and services for policymaking, China Economic Weekly reported on August 5, 2013.
However, it is hard for these academies to be close to the local decision-making process, the report said.
In general, provincial governments and Party committees have policy study offices, provincial development research centers and decision advisory committees, which all come before local social sciences academies in consulting over policymaking, the report said, noting that the social sciences academies are sometimes marginalized in the decision-making process.
At a national meeting of social sciences academies held in July 2013, provincial academies said they face challenges in terms of financing and organizing research projects, the report said.
Social sciences academies rely entirely on capital allocated by local governments, so a lack of influence in decision-making leads to fewer funds, according to the report.
As well as competing with local governmental departments, social sciences academies also face overseas rivals, including think tanks and consulting companies.
German consulting company Roland Berger Strategy Consultants opened a branch in Shanghai in 1983.
In its early years in China, most of the company's customers were multinational companies running businesses in China. "But now, about 80 percent of our customers are Chinese," Ye Jun, a partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants Greater China, told the Global Times Monday.
In addition to providing services for companies, Roland Berger has been hired by various local governments to assist with regional development.
Having lagged behind the prosperity of coastal areas, central and western regions of the country that are seeking to boost their development are eager to seek advice from overseas consulting companies that can provide suggestions from a global viewpoint, Ye said.
Compared with think tanks affiliated to local governments, global consulting firms are more objective, as they do not rely on funding from local governments, according to Ye.
A former staff member of consulting company Accenture named Wang, who only gave her surname, told the Global Times Monday that one advantage of a global consulting company is that it can provide comprehensive services, including data collection, project design, and training for employees.
While at Accenture, Wang worked on designing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software system for a State-owned enterprise.
Comprehensive consulting programs can be expensive, Wang said, noting that the ERP program she joined lasted for more than five years.
Consulting companies send teams to work with the client firms and the price for one day can be tens of thousands of yuan.
Overseas think tanks and consulting firms are the strongest competitors for domestic think tanks, Wang Jun, vice director of Guangdong Social Sciences Academy, was quoted as saying in the China Economic Weekly report.
The local government of Shanghai set up a global think tank communication center in 2011, comprising 11 global companies including Accenture, IBM and Roland Berger, in a bid to provide suggestions for Shanghai's development, media reports said.