Think tanks have been incredibly popular in China, which in turn gives rise to think tank study and a ranking system.
However, this is a sector far from being rational and well regulated, as some commercial organizations also leap in pretending to be scholastic institutes. This frenetic development lacks certain criteria to rule out the unqualified and this needs to be sorted out before the intellectual industry becomes a total mess.
What should a think tank be?
A think tank should be a relatively independent policy research or consultative institute providing original and creative ideas to meet the needs of the country, government and society, and certainly not driven by a profit motive.
Not all research institutes in specific fields can be called think tanks. Generally speaking, think tanks here and abroad refer mostly to those whose research focuses on State strategies, diplomatic policies and international relations.
According to the Opinions on Intensifying the Building of New Type Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics issued by the central authorities at the end of January, these should be "nonprofit research institutions and consultancies working mainly on strategic issues and public policies to aid the decisions to be made scientifically, democratically and in conformity with laws by the CPC and the government."
Therefore, those institutes which call themselves think tanks but focus on making profits should be considered unqualified.
Relations between think tanks and government
Independence is indispensable to the credibility, impartiality and commonality of a think tank. Without this, the organization is more likely to become a mouthpiece of interest groups.
But this independent stance should not insulate think tanks from the government, which is the major consumer of their intellectual products; deliberately keeping a distance could lead to weakened influence of the think tanks.
American think tanks, for example - often held up as models of freedom, independence and discretion, the very qualities that seem to enable them to keep a distance from the government - actually have close and complicated relations with every administration.
Think tanks cannot survive without administrative resources and information; meanwhile, the government needs to use the influence of intellectuals as opinion leaders to facilitate easy passage of an intended decision and ensuing implementation. However, in spite of their tangled symbiotic relations with the government, the independence of U.S. think tanks cannot be totally denied.
Relations between think tanks and market
Nonprofit think tanks should be prevented from the pursuit of commercial interests, which may cause their deviation from principal values. However, their intellectual products need to be tested by the market for their value to public policies so as to sort out the weak from the strong.
However, it is very difficult, especially in this era of globalization when the booming info-communication constantly creates new situations, for think tanks to stay abreast of developments.
To become competitive, think tanks are required to focus on farsighted research and provide good intellectual products that meet both domestic and overseas policy demands. Only by doing so can their value be maximized.
Relations between think tanks and academic
Think tanks are fundamentally different from academic institutes in regard to their positions and research. Although think tanks are genetically related to ivory towers, their focus is policy research rather than pure academic study. They should ensure timeliness and acuity in their thinking to serve policy making, and yet abide by the academic paradigms to distinguish their work from opinions or unsophisticated policy analysis.
Academics attach importance to the methodology of deductions, while, policy research mainly focuses on empirical comparison. Despite their differences, however, both need theoretical support, without which policy research would be less persuasive and narrow in scope. Therefore, a think tank is responsible for searching for solutions to real problems while strictly following academic paradigms.
All in all, think tanks evolve in coordination with the government, market and the public. Their sustainable development requires not only enthusiasm but also professionalism and rationality to avoid creating another "Great-Leap-Forward" in the intellectual market.
The writer is deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and chairman of the Charhar Institute.