Think tanks sinking

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-2-23 21:18:01

Photo: IC

Despite being established 10 years ago and having a high public profile, the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a non-government affiliated think tank, still suffers from economic and talent woes.

"The main problem faced by grass-roots think tanks are their tough economic constraints, which mean they are not attractive to young professionals," Yang Dongping, the director of the institute, told the Global Times.

A report released by the Think Tank Research Center of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in January found that even though the number of think tanks in China has been increasing over the last decade, non-governmental think tanks face a difficult situation due to a lack of funds and difficulties accessing information.

Numerous reports have shown that the development of Chinese think tanks is unbalanced, with government-backed think tanks at the central level being flush with funds but local government and non-government think tanks struggling to make ends meet.

Independence concerns

The 2013 Global Go To Think Tank Index released by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program of the University of Pennsylvania showed that China has the second largest number of think tanks, a total of 426, after the US which has 1,828 think tanks.

There were six Chinese organizations among the 100 top think tanks outside the US, five of which were backed by the central government.

A blue book regarding the development of Chinese think tanks claimed in February 2013 that 95 percent of the think tanks are backed by the government and many of them merely serve to publicize government policies.

Think tanks affiliated with the government have been criticized as being tainted with bureaucracy, affecting their academic work.

In addition, research results released by government-backed think tanks are often accused of flattering government policies.

But there are exceptions. From time to time these think tanks will challenge government organs.

A detailed report into judicial transparency carried out by the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) discovered that the Higher People's Court of Zhejiang Province, the sponsor of the research, ranked last in terms of transparency among 103 courts at all levels in the province in December 2013.

Zhu Xufeng, a professor with the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University told the Oriental Outlook magazine earlier this month that these think tanks don't all have the same views as the government.

He noted that there is no clear relationship between think tanks' research results and how they are funded.

Shut out

In order to receive support from local authorities, some provincial academies of social sciences have to stoop to questionable research projects into the ideas outlined by local officials, expressing admiration for their suggestions in order to curry favor.

A dean of a provincial academy of social sciences, who asked to remain anonymous, said that this is often their only option, and if they bring other ideas or suggestions to local authorities it can backfire as the authorities may be irritated and scale back the funds they receive.

In addition to funding concerns, these think tanks are often excluded from key policy discussions.

"The governments have set up their own affiliated research institutes and provide them with more materials and information. They have good connections with officials and have guaranteed funds. The academies of social sciences are marginalized," Bao Zhendong, head of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences was quoted as saying in the report.

In addition, provincial government-backed think tanks are often criticized as "creating lazy people" due to the fact they receive regular salaries allocated by local authorities, and thus have little incentive to make breakthroughs or challenge ideas.

Cash crisis

A number of provincial academies of social sciences said that the central-government backed CASS, one of the six on the think tank index, focuses more on spending the funds it receives while local academies remain more focused on how to get funds, the China Economic Weekly reported, noting that some heads of smaller think tanks even said that their main task is to "find money and find projects."

One example of a successful NGO think tank is the China Center for International Economic Exchanges, the only NGO out of the six top think tanks on the index. It is headed by Zeng Peiyan, former vice-premier of the State Council, and has several consultants who are former or current high-level officials. It receives significant funding from its members, many of which are State-owned companies.

It is the exception rather than the norm."Our funds mostly come from foundations, companies and social institutes and they are assigned mainly to doing projects," Yang said in reference to the 21st Century Education Research Institute, noting that administrative expenses such as rental fees and research fellows' salaries are not paid for using these contributions. Instead, they hold fundraising activities to cover these.

"We have been raising administrative funds through activities and through donations from a council of members of our institute (who are heads of foundations or companies), but it's not a sustainable method. We plan to set up our own funding system by launching some commercial projects," Yang said.

Zhu said that if the think tanks fund themselves via other fundraising projects, they may be distracted from research. There is also the issue of whether their research may have conflicts of interest with fundraising projects. "Think tanks should be funded via donations. Funds are donated to institutes or research fellows to allow them to freely conduct long-term research," Zhu said.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs announced at the end of 2013 that 200 million yuan($32.8 million) will be allocated in 2014 to support projects by non-government organizations. In July 2013, Premier Li Keqiang said that research should be conducted to push the government to buy services from non-government organizations.

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