By Louis Mark
On October 14, 2015, Matt Ferchen, Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, joined us for a talk about his professional life and work in America and China. As a current resident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Institute for Global Policy and a fellow Johns Hopkins University SAIS alumnus, Dr. Ferchen gave us invaluable perspective on the relative impacts policy think tanks have on decision-making, while shedding light on his own research and personal experiences in Washington, D.C. and Beijing.
Dr. Ferchen’s first experiences with research institutes began in D.C. At the National Security Archive under the auspices of George Washington University, he interned for the institute’s Cuba Documentation Project. The project harnessed the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to primary US documents in order to rewrite historical foreign policy. His project came at a favorable time, coinciding with the recent end of the Cold War and the Clinton administration’ goals to expand channels with Cuba. His second internship at the Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) exposed him to congressional outreach on US relations with the developing world. There the council’s primary goals concerned income development, food security, and democracy building.
These initial experiences in the milieu of the DC bubble gave Dr. Ferchen keen perspective upon his arrival and continued research in Beijing. He reflected on established policy think tank culture in the US and further compared that to the drastic change China underwent since he set foot in the country. He points to the 2009 Global Think Tank Summit established by the NDRC and China Center of International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE) as representative of Chinese think tank fervor. Think tanks are increasingly becoming the main vehicles for consulting, avenues for discussion among experts, and spaces for the conferences/projects. At the Summit, he witnessed not only the most prominent international think tank invitees, but a special attentiveness to collaborative efforts in understanding how think tanks operate, what kind of research should be focused on, and how China can create high-ranking think tanks on an international scale. The 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report released by the University of Pennsylvania reports that out of a total of 6,618 think tanks in the world, 1,989 of them, or 30.05%, are American. The Chinese proportion certainly increased since Dr. Ferchen arrival. Given his comments on the think tank craze of the last 15 years, it is no surprise that China ranks second behind the US in sheer number of institutions.[i]
While American think tanks can be characterized as varied in that they tend to focus on one topic, can be bipartisan (align with a particular political party), can be independent, and do not necessarily concentrate on international relations, China’s think tank development remains open-ended. In the space of Dr. Ferchen’s own professional career, he has seen a number of unprecedented, hybrid collaborations with American and Chinese think tanks, including Brookings-Tsinghua in 2006 and Carnegie-Tsinghua in 2010. As part of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, he researches China and Latin America relations with regards to commodity relations in oil and raw materials. He analyses the political risk and management in relation to China’s international economic initiatives and domestic political economy. His research unearths pressing questions concerning loan-for-oil contracts and the consequences of Chinese investment in unstable regions of South America.
In conducting this research during what may be a Chinese policy think tank revolution, Dr. Ferchen challenges us to think critically of how his research and research in general impacts decision-making for a nation. To what extent are think tanks independent from domestic politics and how is their research output being used? Policy think tanks are on the rise in China, and Dr. Ferchen leaves us with several poignant questions we invite you to help answer:
1. Do you believe think tanks influence policymakers or vice versa? How?
2. To what degree does funding influence the work of a think tank, and is objective research output the highest goal? Why or why not?
3. What would it mean for a foreign think tank in China to have influence on Chinese policy?
[i] James G. Mcgann, 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report. Think Tanks and Civil Society Programs, University of Pennsylvania, Copyright 2014, 53-54.