Challenges Faced by Chinese Think Tanks: CCG book Global Think Tanks (2.0) excerpt
Severe talent shortage, competition from new media and consulting firms, and adapting to Big Data technology continue to challenge Chinese think tanks, Henry Huiyao Wang and Mable Lu Miao write.
This is the fourth and last installment of the series of excerpts from Global Think Tanks (2.0), written by Henry Huiyao Wang, President of Center for China & Globalization (CCG) and Mabel Lu Miao, Secretary-General of CCG, which delves into the mission, challenges, and future development of Chinese think tanks against complexities in the international arena.
The book is published by 人民出版社 the People's Publishing House. A book release, hosted by CCG on August 18, 2023, featured a seminar of leading figures from Chinese think tanks and renowned experts and scholars in globalization research.
Today's post is taken from Chapter 7 titled "Development Challenges of Chinese Think Tanks." It identifies seven major challenges confronting Chinese think tanks, from internal issues such as the need for institutional reform and addressing talent shortages, to external pressures like competition from consulting firms and the rise of new media. Additionally, it highlights the overarching challenge posed by the rapid evolution of the Big Data era.
Challenges Faced by Chinese Think Tanks
The rapidly changing international landscape and the swift development of China's economy and society present new challenges to the growth of Chinese think tanks. To thrive and survive in the ever-changing domestic and international environments, Chinese think tanks need to continually address and research the impacts of global economic development, the rise of various new advisory organizations, the use of new media, the scarcity of management talent in think tanks, and updates in operational methods and concepts.
I. Severe Lack of Talent in Think Tanks
It is a truth universally acknowledged in contemporary China that talent is the primary resource, whether it pertains to national governance or business management. Think tanks, being intellect-intensive institutions, place even higher and more urgent demands for talent. The development of Chinese think tanks requires the absorption of modern elite talents, including a large number of exceptional intellectuals and exceptionally gifted professionals. Leveraging their insights and capabilities becomes crucial in driving the flourishing of these think tanks.
The history of think tank development in China is relatively short, and national emphasis on modernizing think tank construction is a recent phenomenon. Currently, there is a strong demand in Chinese think tanks for elite talents. These talents mainly fall into three categories: high-end policy advisors, independent research talents, and new-type all-round talents.
High-end policy advisors
They have established avenues for offering policy advice, engaging in decision-making processes, and exerting their influence through their publications and innovative ideas. This group predominantly comprises former senior government officials and influential scholars. Attracting individuals of this caliber demands not only an appealing reputation for the think tank but also a well-structured and seamless revolving door mechanism that facilitates their involvement.
Independent research talents
They exhibit both autonomous thinking and distinctive character. These individuals are capable of spearheading and actively participating in substantial projects and research endeavors. Although there are many so-called “experts" and '“authorities" in China, real independent research talents come in very short supply. To address this shortage depends on nurturing and development of independent intellectual elites. Furthermore, think tanks must prioritize the enhancement of their own capacity to foster independence and cultivate research talent internally.
New-type all-round talents
They are capable of participating not only in research activities but also in planning, organizing, promoting, fundraising, and other tasks. In other words, they possess high-level and comprehensive qualities.
In recruiting talents for think tanks, I believe the most important qualities are "individual research ability, independent thinking, and innovative capacity. We welcome talents who are dedicated to research, have a broad or profound understanding of society, state, people, and globalization, and are capable of presenting their independent views and mastering research methods quickly.
Furthermore, regardless of the type of think tank, the quality of its management significantly impacts its development. Discovering and cultivating talents who truly understand the modern operation model of think tanks is a significant challenge faced by Chinese think tanks.
II. Challenges Brought by New Media
Traditionally, publishing has been the most important means of disseminating ideas and the primary method for think tanks to spread their research findings. However, the rapid development of new information transmission methods and the fast spread of information pose challenges to the dissemination of research findings by think tanks. If the painstakingly researched findings are preemptively published by others, it would be a wasted effort. Thus, think tanks need to adapt to new and fast information dissemination channels like blogs, microblogs, and WeChat, to seize the opportunity to publish their research findings first.
However, while channels such as blogs, microblogs, and WeChat quickly convey information, they have limited capacity for disseminating it, especially when compared to the typically lengthy research findings of think tanks. Integrating research findings with dissemination channels is another challenge posed by new media. The evolution of new media presents a significant challenge to think tanks, requiring them to adapt to new dissemination methods while ensuring the quality and integrity of their research.
To tackle this challenge, think tanks need to reform in several aspects: conducting research on study subjects, contemplating better service provision to clients, and using more concise and clear methods to make research findings more comprehensible and acceptable to policymakers and the public. These changes are transforming the ways think tanks analyze, discuss, research, and influence public policies, forcing them to adjust promptly to avoid obsolescence.
III. Challenges of the Big Data Era
"Just as the telescope enabled us to comprehend the universe and the microscope allowed us to understand germs, the new techniques for collecting and analyzing huge bodies of data will help us make sense of our world in ways we are just starting to appreciate...We’re entering a world of constant data-driven predictions where we may not be able to explain the reasons behind our decisions," wrote Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think.
The United Nations, in its white paper "Big Data for Development: Opportunities & Challenges," states, "Big Data constitutes an historic opportunity to advance our common ability to support and protect human communities by understanding the information they increasingly produce in digital forms." Big data, characterized by its real-time nature, objectivity, and time series, is highly valuable for research. It can effectively overcome the inevitable subjectivity of traditional data collection methods. For think tanks engaged in public policy research, this greatly enhances the objectivity and persuasiveness of their research.
Studies show that although think tanks domestically and internationally are gradually focusing on the impact of Big Data on research and incorporating it into their studies, most think tanks globally have not established institutions specifically for big data research. Only a few, like the Brookings Institution with its "Center for Technology Innovation," have taken steps in this direction, with most think tanks only considering big data at the level of research needs.
The advent of the Big Data era poses a stern test for Chinese think tanks: they must incorporate this knowledge into their research or risk becoming outdated information sources. Building large databases through collaboration and mastering vast data is just the first step in this test. What follows is the need for "processing capability" of data and the "value addition" through processing. If think tanks can deeply mine the potential value of massive data resources, it will help researchers better grasp the present and predict the future, significantly enhancing the competitiveness and impact of think tank products.
IV. Competition from Consulting Firms
The global marketplace of ideas is fiercely competitive. Media organizations, consulting firms, law firms, and other institutions are competing for more attention from public policymakers. This "supply outstrips demand" situation presents a new challenge for non-profit think tanks. In an environment filled with numerous policy viewpoints, think tanks need to earn more attention by ensuring a lasting spirit of innovation, effective communication strategies, significant political influence, and particularly rigorous and timely research work. As more market competitors enter the fray, the competition for funding is expected to intensify.
According to research by James McGann [Founder and Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute], the era when a small group of "golden donors" provided substantial and consistent financial support to think tanks is gone. Today, think tanks receive more donations for specific, influential short-term projects rather than long-term operational support. This "short-term financing" phenomenon forces think tanks to juggle various new projects. More importantly, it raises the question of whether such targeted funding for specific short-term projects is causing think tanks to gradually lose control over fulfilling their institutional missions and advancing research processes, and whether it impacts the independence and objectivity of think tank research findings. This is a new test faced by think tanks.
V. Organizational Adjustments and Transformation
The development of the economy and society, along with changes in information dissemination methods and speeds, has brought new challenges to think tanks. The traditional operation model of think tanks, primarily based on research outcomes, is facing challenges. The operational model of think tanks is the result of years of accumulation, with their research outcomes being their biggest products and selling points. However, market development requires think tanks to not only conduct research and produce solid outcomes but also to promote and publicize their findings. This necessitates think tanks to adjust their organizational structure, promoting a shift from a research-centric to a more functionally diverse organization.
Consequently, most mature think tanks in the world today have academic research departments as well as departments for activities, marketing, and media publicity. The personnel structure of think tanks has also become more diverse, including not only researchers but also personnel for promoting outcomes and market development, with the latter increasingly becoming a driving force in think tank development.
VI. Insufficient Brand Credibility
The biggest crisis for Chinese think tanks today lies in a crisis of credibility, largely determined by the broader context of a trust crisis in Chinese society. Within this context of non-governmental trust crisis, the public has become accustomed to skepticism, doubting the research outcomes and viewpoints released by think tanks and generally harboring a suspicious attitude towards various research institutions.
While the non-governmental environment contributes to the trust deficit experienced by think tanks, it's undeniable that Chinese think tanks themselves often lack the necessary credibility. Government-established think tanks, although seemingly non-governmental organizations, actually function as government branches, making it hard to ensure the objectivity and fairness of their research and viewpoints. Meanwhile, some think tanks established by companies and individuals lean towards fulfilling their own interests for survival and development, leading to a blurring of personal and public interests and lack of transparency in think tank operations.
Maintaining a balance between independence, interest, and influence requires high skill. Only by properly managing these relationships can think tanks maintain their credibility among government decision-makers and the public. In the long run, to form and maintain credibility, think tanks must produce professional, objective, and scientific research outcomes and viewpoints that significantly impact policymakers, media, and the public on key issues. This is a common challenge faced by all types of Chinese think tanks.
VII. Disadvantagious Position in International Discourse
International discourse power is an extension of a nation's soft power, reflecting the influence and appeal of its ideology and values. In the past, China's limited presence in international discourse deprived it of the ability to engage effectively on the global stage. Regrettably, the current global discourse landscape still largely maintains the stark reality of "the West being strong and us being weak." Considering its status as the world's second-largest economy, China's strength necessitates a more prominent position in the international discourse system. This elevated standing would empower China to express its viewpoints on global issues and exert its influence. Therefore, China must enhance its proficiency in effectively communicating with foreign audiences. In this endeavor, Chinese think tanks play an indispensable role.
Chinese think tanks can utilize their strengths to help domestic and international audiences understand the nature of China's policies, the reasons behind policy-making, and the current international situation. However, to achieve this, Chinese think tanks first need to possess sufficient international discourse power.
Currently, most Chinese think tanks' research is limited to a single country or region, lacking global thinking, international vision, and forward-looking and systematic research capabilities. As a result, the voice of Chinese think tanks in the international community is weak, lacking necessary international influence, and placing them in an absolutely disadvantaged position in the international discourse system.
To reverse this position, Chinese think tanks have much to do. They should focus on several key objectives:
Actively shape and guide international discourse, taking a more prominent role in global discussions.
Challenge the dominance of Western think tanks and media, aiming to create breakthroughs that boost China's international discourse power.
Learn from and study Western think tanks, enhancing their ability to respond to and influence international public opinion.
Increase their international presence and accelerate the internationalization and "going global" strategy of Chinese think tanks.
The strengthening of Chinese think tank power is crucial for reversing China's current limited influence in the global discourse arena. This will significantly contribute to China's efforts in establishing a more pronounced voice in international discourse.
A major power's role in international affairs is closely tied to its ability to shape global discourse. Establishing this international discourse power is critical, and for this, the presence of prominent national think tanks capable of engaging in international dialogue is essential. We look forward to Chinese think tanks to rise to the level of the world's leading institutions in the future, contributing significantly and making influential contributions in the international sphere.
In summary, Chinese think tanks are encountering various challenges due to shifting global dynamics. To effectively navigate these challenges and excel in competitive environments, think tanks must embody the characteristics identified by economists as essential for a "successful think tank." These include in-depth research capabilities, political influence, public appeal, a supportive operational environment, and access to a vast pool of professional talent. Without these elements, the progression of Chinese think tanks may lag, potentially impacting China's soft power and its overall future development.
See the previous three excerpts from Global Think Tanks (2.0) on CCG Update: