The top leadership has long recognized the important role of think tanks and encouraged their development. According to a "2013 Global Go to Think Tanks Report", released by the University of Pennsylvania at the beginning of this year, there are 426 think tanks in China, only the US with 1,828 has more.
However, while they have mushroomed in number, there is now a debate about the role of think tanks in China. While some believe that in order to be influential a think tank should serve the government and offer research results to official decision-makers, others insist that a think tank must remain independent of the government to be of use.
Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The pro-government approach was derived from former Soviet Union, where most, if not all, of the think tanks were funded by the government to offer advice through secret channels. While it is easier for such think tanks to influence government policies, they often refrain from raising opinions contrary to the will of government leaders, as the government is their sponsor.
The independent approach is more like the situation in the US, where think tanks generally avoid being linked with the government. They are even proud of not agreeing with the government and often intentionally refuse funding from the government for that reason.
But while such think tanks might look more professional and independent, they would not work in China, as it lacks the large number of private or non-governmental foundations that offer support to US think tanks behind the scenes. It is hard to imagine Chinese think tanks surviving without any financial help from the government.
Thus Chinese think tanks must find a new approach. The debate on the development of think tanks in China is actually focused on the dilemma between "influence" and "independence": as policy advice providers, think tanks must be able to influence the government, but they have to be independent of it, too, to avoid becoming its subject. Reaching a balance between the two is the key to the development of think tanks in China.
That requires us to alter some common misunderstandings. It should be first made clear that influence does not equal being official and the influence of a think tank should never be judged only by how much of its advice is accepted by the government. In this Information Age, instead of directly offering their research results to the government, Chinese think tanks could publish their reports via the Internet and gain social instead of official influence. Rallying mass support online is often the best way of making the government accept policy advice.
On the other hand, independence does not equate to being unofficial, either. Think tanks should bear in mind that the government is the ultimate consumer of their advice, as well as a primary source of information for their research efforts, so they can never be completely detached from the government. Besides, even those not funded by the government can also be reliant upon the source of their funding. Think tanks that intentionally stay away from or even oppose the government fall into another trap.
Therefore influence and independence are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary, only those with considerable influence can achieve true independence and be truly free to support or blame the government, no matter who funds them.
That makes a new mode for Chinese think tanks possible. Actually, with deepening reform, Chinese think tanks are already breaking the official monopoly and following different ways of being: think tanks sponsored by private funds or dual fund sources are emerging.
This trend is both a reaction to the ongoing social transformation and a positive attempt to form a new development mode for Chinese think tanks.
The author is a professor of public administration at Tsinghua University. This is an excerpt of his speech at a recent "Think tank and the development of China" conference organized by Beijing-based Center for China&Globalization.