On December 23, 2015, Dr. Zhu Xufeng, Professor at the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University, met with members of NexGen Global Forum and delivered a lecture about think tanks and their functions within China. Dr. Zhu's research focuses on think tanks and the function of experts in policy creation, and he has worked to create a typology of think tanks over the course of several books including China's Think Tanks: Their Influence in the Policy Process. Since we here at NexGen Global Forum are managing our own think tank, we found Dr. Zhu's meta-analysis quite interesting and useful.
The first step in studying think tanks is, of course, defining what precisely a think tank is and how one differs from similar institutions like lobbying groups. The broad definition offered by Dr. Zhu frames a think tank as a public policy research, analysis, and engagement organization that is knowledge-based and policy-oriented, serving governments, intergovernmental organizations, and civil societies. This distinction separates think tanks from lobbying groups, which are not restricted purely to research to promote their agendas. Think tanks aim to influence policy, but by providing a research-based recommendation rather than one motivated by an organizational agenda or hope of monetary gain. The last part of the definition is also important; not all think tanks are concerned primarily with reaching governments. Some instead function as the "brain trusts" for civil society organizations, putting academic muscle behind activist calls.
Though the wide variety of think tanks fulfill this broad definition, they exist within an equally wide range of contexts. It is hard to say that the US-based Congressional Research Service, a formal part of the American legislative branch, and the autonomous Institute of Security Studies in South Africa operate in the same way. This is where Dr. Zhu's typology of think tanks comes to hand; organizations are distinguished by their degree of independence in pursuing and producing research. Although a number of think tanks have both financial independence and research autonomy, many more exist on a spectrum where one or both are to varying degrees under the influence of a higher authority. From completely autonomous and independent think tanks to quasi-independent ones, free from government influence but beholden to an interest group or donor master, from think tanks incorporated into the structure of a government itself to quasi-governmental ones which function entirely on government grants and contracts but exist outside the formal structure, in universities or even corporate consortiums, the overriding interest is a pursuit of independence, Dr. Zhu argues. Only if think tanks seek constantly to push the outer limits of their independent inquiry can they produce the most valuable, worthwhile research.
This presents a challenge in particular for think tanks in China, where the number of think tanks has risen sharply since the 1980s to around 425 as of 2009. Many exist either as part of the government structure, or in strong patronage relationships; in either case, the predominant conception is of think tanks as "external brains" for the government. They do not actually draft policy, as research offices in various government organs can, but to a degree can move towards self-determination in deciding on research subjects and targets.
So where does this place the NexGen Global Forum? We are closely affiliated with Tsinghua University, as our membership is currently part of the Tsinghua-SAIS Master's Program, but we are given a great deal of leeway in defining and pursuing our research. A great deal of discussion revolves around our audience - as a think tank located in Beijing, our natural audience would be the government, but as a student collective our prescriptions are perhaps not authoritative enough to be considered by that audience. Instead, we draw our inspiration from academia and civil society, and hope that through engagement with a wide swath of residents here, from academics to locals to expatriates, we can offer a young, multicultural perspective on international relations in this global city.