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China's non-governmental think tanks
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Systematic and pluralistic channels for public hearings should be put into place if decision makers desire clear understanding of national conditions and the public's will. Non-governmental think tanks will play a constructive role in this regard. How to tap their potential is becoming an important issue.

In the report at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao devoted a whole chapter to "unswervingly developing socialist democracy". He stressed that to ensure scientific and democratic decision making, "We will improve the information and intellectual support for it".

What is the current situation of non-governmental think tanks? What role will they play in China's future development? Today, these formerly low-profile organizations are cutting brilliant figures in various social circles in the country.

Folk wisdom weights heavily upon top decision makers

In the past, most people tended to assume that public decision-making was the government's job. With the passing of times, however, their opinion changed.

In the latter half of 2007, stock indexes in Shanghai climbed over 6,000 points shortly after reaching a historical high of 5,000 points. While the State is working hard to foster a multi-tiered capital market, the public seems to have forgotten that the stock market was introduced into China in 1988 by a small group of overseas returnees. Since then, China has experienced rapid development in capital market thanks to the wisdom of numerous untold people. Stocks are now indispensable both to the national economy and to the lives of common people.

Folk wisdom has made great contributions to a variety of other important issues such as Beijing's bid for the 2008 Olympic Games and the formulation of the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). To tap the full potential of the country's brilliant folk wisdom, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called on governmental departments to occasionally consult the people.

In comparison to the limited power of individual wisdom, non-governmental think tanks are better-organized and they enjoy an important role in information consultation. A case in point is the formulation of the 11th Five-Year Plan. In October 2003, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) invited public bidding from all over the world regarding research programs during the initial period of the 11th Five-Year Plan. This was the first time that the Chinese government had adopted this method of public bidding for economic reform plans and it marked a major stride forward for the Chinese government towards scientific decision-making.

Over the past three decades after the reform and opening-up in 1978, non-governmental think tanks have witnessed constant growth in size, number and power. The government's change in function and governing methods also provides ample space for development. The non-governmental think tanks have cut brilliant figures in Chinese society by bridging the communication gap between common people and top decision makers. They have played an important role in various social events like combating SARS in 2003 and modifying the Constitution of the People's Republic of China.

Non-governmental think tanks cut brilliant figures

Currently, think tanks in China fall into three categories: special research institutions set up by the government in accordance with national policies, research institutions affiliated to universities but operating independently, and folk research institutions in the form of non-profit organizations and commercial organizations. Of all of them, the folk research institutions, or the non-governmental think tanks, have cut the most dazzling figure serving China's political and public service sectors.

Non-government think tanks differ from each other with regard to their influence. Among them all the Chinese Economists 50 Forum (50 Forum) enjoys the highest reputation. On July 28, 2007, the third 50 Forum convened in Tianhengdao, in east China's Shandong Province, during which Liu He, Wu Xiaoling, Yi Gang and Xu Shanda made in-depth analyses of hot economic issues including the market economy, industrialization, globalization and socialization. During the forum, the economists reached an agreement that "equity in income distribution should be the focus of future macro-economic control measures". The opinion aroused nationwide attention when published by the media.

As a non-governmental academic organization, how does the 50 Forum attract so many renowned scholars such as Wu Jinglian, Liu He, Fan Gang, Lin Yifu, Tang Min and Zhang Shuguang?

The answer can be found in an article written by Liu He, a member of the academic committee of the 50 Forum and vice director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs. In this article, Liu recalled, "In June 1998, China experienced severe deflation. I felt there was a pressing need to establish a platform for regular and in-depth discussions on China's economy. Scholars with similar academic backgrounds in economics would join the platform. I explained my idea to Fan Gang inside a fast-food shop and he was enthusiastic. We then worked out the plan of the 50 Forum, gaining strong support from Wu Jinglian and Yi Gang. Thanks to all their efforts, the non-governmental forum was finally set up..."

Today, members of the 50 Forum are all China's top economists. They meet to share academic achievements, exchange views on China's economic situation, participate in discussions on major economic issues, and put forth suggestions for relevant policies. All their opinions have received ample attention from the country's top decision makers.

In addition, the forum holds various workshops, where members analyze hot economic issues, identify causes of current economic problems and put forth suggestions of corresponding solutions. All the conclusions made on the forum are published on the Chinese Economists 50 Forum Monthly, an internal journal that will also be sent to policy-making departments and State administration departments for their reference. Some forum members currently work in government departments. The forum has already received much support from the State Information Center and the China Economic Information Network in its inception but it remains an informal communication platform.

Today, many countries have official think tanks; for example, the US has the Council of Economic Advisors. Consequently, the 50 Forum in China is making every effort to disseminate information and intellectual support to the Chinese government as a non-governmental institution.
Similar organizations are not rare in China. The Western Returned Scholars Association of China (WRSA), the largest and earliest organization of overseas returnees, has made outstanding contributions to the Chinese government by offering special insights into various social issues. Chen Xiqing, vice minister of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, once pointed out, "The policies of our party are formulated on the basis of a variety of information. The quantity and quality of information is of vital importance to policy success. In this regard, overseas returnees enjoy many advantages: with their foreign education background, rich working experience, and deep understanding of Chinese and western cultures."

To offer more advice for China's social and economic development in 2007 the WRSA convened a forum in Beijing. Members held in-depth discussions on hot social issues and worked out many constructive solutions to major social problems.

The 2005 Committee of the Chamber of Commerce under the WRSA was formed voluntarily by a group of overseas returnees engaged in business and other economic activities in China. As a senior think tank for the Chinese government, Chinese enterprises and various social organizations, the committee is working hard to strengthen ties between Chinese and foreign business circles, and to develop feasible solutions to strategic issues, thus helping boost the modernization drive of China. The Brief Suggestions, its internal publication, is a must-read for relevant government departments.

How civil think-tanks play a constructive role
Public decision-making sometimes is not so effective, especially regarding the protection of the rights and interests of disadvantaged groups. Scientific research, policy-making consultations and information releasing systems can be attributed to simple inefficiency, so the importance of detailed, accurate and real consultation, along with prior studies is highlighted.

Given the diversity and complexity of modern society, scientific decision-making by a government should depend on extensive consultation. To obtain accurate public opinions institutionalized and decision-making departments must establish diverse channels. It goes without saying that it is very important to promote civilian think-tanks in China that aim at the long-term prospects.

The public has stronger appeal, expectations and interest towards civilian think-tanks as the best brains develop independent ideas. People turn to nongovernmental think-tanks while making decisions or reforming proposals serving their own interests.

The Chinese government has collected solutions for health system reforms from domestic and overseas research institutions as well as from international organizations. This proves that the government's awareness of scientific decision-making has improved, some experts said. Yet none of the solutions for the health system and the college entrance exam reforms have come from civilian think-tanks.

Experts also pointed out that the Chinese civilian think-tanks develop in stages, so they will not achieve overnight success but they also should not drag their feet.

Wu Mingyu, the former vice director of the Development Research Center of the State Council, said during the Top Capital Asia-Pacific Summit on April 17, 2007 that there are four obstacles toward the development of civilian brainpower:

How to define the decision-making power of the governments; how to deal with the uniqueness of the registration of non-governmental organizations; how to cope with the problem of funds - without adequate public funds civilian think-tanks will have trouble remaining independent and fair. At present, there are no public funds to support civilian think-tanks. The information releasing system, the construction of information resources and information bases should all be strengthened. Civilian think-tanks are not good enough in terms of quantity and quality. No sound interaction between civilian think-tanks, governments and the public exists due to poor independent construction capacity, insufficient awareness of self placement, the legal environment and various decision-making systems.

To promote decision-making on a more scientific and democratic basis and improve information intellectual support systems were proposed at the 17th National Congress of the CPC. When people consider how these systems could be established more quickly, what kinds of systems for decision-making consultation are needed and which information and intellectual support systems should be built, they have great expectations for civilian think-tanks.


It is more and more difficult to deal with public governance, so think-tanks were born. Governments realize that scientific decision-making and optimized governance depends on think-tanks; this is common sense for modern administration theory. These think-tanks not only focus on theory exploration, but also forward reasonable and feasible legislative proposals and policy programs based on their philosophies and professional academic study.

Nongovernmental organizations and individuals can put forward their ideas, advice and voice through various legal channels, in order to influence governmental decision-making; this is how the civil think-tanks participate in public policy-making. 

Developed countries pay great attention to the construction of policy-making systems. Civilian think-tanks in foreign countries concentrate on consultations. Nongovernmental top brains often rise and make noticeable progress during periods of dramatic social change, and these thinkers play a significant role in the stability and development of societies. Civilian think-tanks around the world developed very quickly after the 1970s, they played a vital role in strengthening economic globalization and global marketization, enhancing the environmental awareness and promoting the construction of civil societies. All the American presidents utilize large think-tanks. Their policy-making systems also include large numbers of experts and scholars who do not belong to these think-tanks, such as the RAND Corporation, the Brookings Institute and the Heritage Foundation. These organizations analyze policy.

A public hearing should be given to promote decision-making in a more scientific and democratic way and improve policy-making information and intellectual support systems, provide transparency of policy-making and public participation, as well as to work out laws and regulations and public policies closely related to people's interests, which has been covered in the report of 17th National Congress of the CPC. The emphasis on policy-making information and intellectual support systems indicates that unprecedented importance has been attached to the civilian think tanks.

( by Chen Xia & Yang Xi, December 2, 2007)

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