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The waterfront in Budapest, site of what Chinese state media call “China’s first independently registered think tank in Europe.” Photo by Jorge Franganillo, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.

09:40 am | 2. March 2020

China’s New Think Tanks in Europe

China has clearly announced its intention to develop “new think tanks” that can bolster its global influence. Should state rhetoric about soft power expansion be taken at face value? And what does this mean for Europe and the rest of the world?

By David Bandurski

For well over a decade, the question of how to project a strong and positive image of China globally in order to enhance the country’s “soft power” has been a central concern for the country’s leadership. Since 2007, when Joseph Nye’s concept made its first high-level official appearance in the Chinese Communist Party’s political report, much of the focus has been on strengthening China’s global media presence. But another key priority, particularly since Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, has been the development of domestic and global think tanks.

This article reviews the push to develop global Chinese think tanks and takes a brief look at one think tank that has been characterized by official Chinese media as “China’s first independently registered think tank in Europe” — the China-CEE Institute in Budapest.

Key Points: 

China has in recent years defined the development of think tanks with an international focus and presence as a top priority in the drive to expand its "discourse power" and "soft power." The primary goal of these so-called “new think tanks” under a central-level policy introduced in 2015 is to “serve the policies of the Party and the government.” One of the most active Chinese think tanks in Europe is the China-CEE Institute in Budapest, launched in 2017.

As China increasingly seeks to engage in the region, the crucial point for Europe is to be mindful of its values and to insist on these values in all exchanges. European organizations and individuals approached by potential Chinese partners should: 1) ensure that they fully understand the associations of these organizations prior to cooperation; 2) insist that cooperation (in research, dialogue and so on) is in keeping with values such as academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas; 3) actively avoid the support (as through now ubiquitous “Belt and Road” projects) of the agendas and frames of the Chinese state, focusing instead on underlying intellectual and policy issues; 4) ensure equal cooperation and balanced contribution from both the Chinese and European sides in terms of program content, financing and staffing, and 5) demand full transparency toward the public regarding the nature of cooperation and the source of funding. 

Consultation or Influence?

Some discussions of Chinese think tank development have interpreted this change as a reflection of greater interest in expert knowledge on the part of the Chinese party-state. They point to the fact that government engagement with academic experts on policy matters was defined as a broad priority early in the Hu Jintao administration — particularly as the 2003 epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) exposed clear inadequacies in the government’s response and the need to “reform and improve the decision-making mechanism.” 

It is certainly true that there has been an expansion over time of think tanks in China, and that to some extent their interactions with the government have suggested that “the decision-making system has become more consultative.” In a 2016 paper on the history of think tank development in China, Tsinghua University economist Hu Angang — generally known for his statist views and strong support for China’s political institutions — described the general trend since 1992 as a steady process of “democratization” and “institutionalization” in which experts from various fields have been progressively involved in government policymaking as politics have moved toward “collective leadership, collective negotiation and collective decision-making.”

Despite the more sanguine view of Hu Angang and others, however, it is important to recognize that the more recent push for think-tank development, which came in January 2015 with the release of a new central-level policy on the creation of what the leadership has called “new think tanks with Chinese characteristics,” is happening in the midst of a clear move away from more deliberative leadership and toward a greater consolidation of power under Xi Jinping – combined with efforts to “remake civil society in the Party-state’s image,” as one expert has put it. An opinion released jointly by nine government ministries in May 2017 made crystal clear that the number one priority of Chinese think tanks is to “serve the policies of the Party and the government.”

International think tank development is now a priority for China’s leadership, and it is regarded as an extension of China’s global “soft power,” serving the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative about China’s development and its role in the world. “In today’s world, the development and competition between countries is also to a definite degree about the competition of knowledge and strategy,” said Wei Liqun, a former director of the Research Office of China’s State Council, shortly after the release of the January 2015 policy on think tanks. “Therefore, high-level and international think tanks have already become an important indicator of a country’s international discourse power and soft power.”

Think tank development was given a further boost in November 2017 as the phrase “building of new think tanks with Chinese characteristics” was included in Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP. But the clearly ideological nature of these think tanks was, according to state media reports, to be their newest aspect: “The 19th National Congress positioning of new think tanks differs from the past in firmly holding to the leadership of ideological work, requiring that think tanks build a strong, cohesive and leading socialist ideology, so that all people are united in their ideals, convictions, values, and ethics.” New think tanks were also to “fully play a role” in the process of what the leadership calls “public opinion channelling,” or setting the agenda in line with the Party’s orientation. 

China’s own language about the role and importance of its “new think tanks” should encourage healthy caution among policymakers in Europe. Likewise, universities and other institutions, as well as academics and researchers, should judge potential exchanges and opportunities with Chinese institutions carefully to ensure that core values like academic freedom and critical thinking are not compromised by larger state agendas. Questions that need to be asked: Is this or that Chinese company, institution or individual linked to China’s Party-state system? If so, how? Are they pushing state agendas or talking points in a way that drives or limits dialogue and cooperation, or are they responsive and open to ideas? Making such determinations can be exceptionally difficult given China’s often strategic opacity over the connections between apparently autonomous institutions and the state.

International think tank development is now a priority for China’s leadership, and it is regarded as an extension of China’s global “soft power,” serving the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative about China’s development and its role in the world.

 

 “New Think Tanks,” Familiar Affiliations

On the question of transparency, it is worth noting that while there is a flood of official text in Chinese laying out the discourse and theory (and even praising the “fine results”) on the building of “new think tanks with Chinese characteristics,” information that actually describes these think-tanks and their activities is exceptionally difficult to come by.

One of the few resources to deal more systematically with “new think tanks,” and with Chinese think tanks more generally, is the annual “China Think Tanks Report” produced by the Center for Think Tank Research (CTTS) of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The latest report, released in March 2019, provides data through to the end of 2018. Included in the CTTS report is a table of so-called “new think tanks” launched since 2015, following the introduction of the new central-level policy and the joint opinion from nine ministries.

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The think tanks in the table are organized according to launch date, the most recent coming last, and are labelled by “type.” The “type” categorizations offer little indication of the function or nature of these think tanks, though in some cases they point clearly to government or university affiliation, such as with the Development Research Center of the State Council, or with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (the national research body under the State Council), both sprawling government research organizations that are also core to China’s overseas engagement and influence.

In nearly every case, simple Chinese searches of the groups on the CTTS list establish clear links with Party or government structures at the national or local levels, which should not surprise given their strategic role as defined since 2017. But researchers and policy-makers should also bear in mind that it is virtually impossible not to find such links when dealing with organizations, researchers and academics in China. This is true because all registered organizations must maintain a connection with the government through a “sponsoring institution,” or zhuguan danwei (主管单位), which ultimately has a responsibility to oversee the organization in question. The political implications of this oversight are certainly there, but they may not necessarily be clear – something that is very difficult for Western observers to fully understand.

If any and all forms of association are viewed as evidence of strategic threat, Europeans and European institutions need to ask how dialogue and cooperation with Chinese can actually happen. In fact, it may be possible to cooperate with “new think tanks,” or with some of the many other Chinese organizations embroiled in various ways with the oversight mechanisms of the Party-state, so long as a number of basic conditions are met. Far better than outright rejection of all association is to insist on a full and nuanced understanding of how these organizations work, and what degree of real autonomy they might have – particularly in an atmosphere of growing alertness to Chinese state influence in Europe and elsewhere.

A quick look at a few of the think tanks on the CTTS can help to illustrate the ambiguities that must be grappled with. Number two on the list is the “Zijin Media Think Tank,” identified simply as a “social think tank.” The organization is located at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, one of the country’s leading universities, and it involves a number of highly respected media scholars and practitioners. It is important to also be aware, however, of the fact that the think tank’s “sponsoring institution” is the propaganda office of the provincial CCP committee in Jiangsu. To provide a hypothetical example, what might this mean for a potential partner in Europe planning a mutual forum on reporting of public health issues, or cybersecurity?

Another “new think tank” on the CTTS list, the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance (BRGG), is affiliated with Fudan University, one of China's highest-ranking educational institutions. The introduction to the think tank in Chinese suggests its interests are more political than educational, its chief goal being to “serve the development of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xi Jinping’s central foreign policy program. But does the organization exist solely to promote state agendas, as this language suggests? Or is it simply positioning itself in this way in order to justify its existence, as many organizations in China must do? Complicating this question is the fact that the director of BRGG is Jiao Yang (焦扬), the university’s Party chief, who previously served in several top positions within the Shanghai’s propaganda department and bureau of press and publication.

Moving down the CTTS list, the China Academy of Economic Trends, labelled a "media think-tank," is operated by the Economic Daily, a publication directly under the Information Office of the State Council with “intimate links with its ministries.” How might this association impact potential interactions with European or other partners?

These examples provide just a taste of the complex associations of think tanks on the CTTS list, illustrating the point that these “new think tanks” are all linked in some way with the Party-state – at the very least as a matter of registration and oversight. Understanding what these links mean in practical terms remains a complicated question. But are any of these think tanks in fact working in Europe? And if so, what role are they playing?

Inroads in Europe?

Revealingly, perhaps, little actually appears about any of these groups outside of Chinese-language sources. When information does appear, it is often from Chinese state media – in coverage, for example, that talks up purported achievements. In this sense, it can often seem that China is talking to itself through its think tank activities, and has achieved little real success in terms of influencing thinking or policy in Europe or elsewhere. However, even a quick review of Chinese-language materials suggests that the “new think tanks” on the CTTS list are finding ways to actively engage and partner with institutions in Europe, pushing official narratives on foreign policy and other matters, and developing points of contact and exchange that could serve China’s interests in the future.

Revealingly, perhaps, little actually appears about any of these groups outside of Chinese-language sources. When information does appear, it is often from Chinese state media – in coverage, for example, that talks up purported achievements.

 

In December last year, the China Academy of Economic Trends, the think tank run by the official Economic Daily, was co-host in Beijing of a forum bringing together “high-level think tank scholars” from Central and Eastern Europe.  According to coverage in Chinese state media, discussion at the forum centered on “a community of common destiny for mankind and China-CEE cooperation,” the former phrase again key to Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, as well as “the Belt and Road Initiative and in Central and Eastern Europe.” European guests were treated to a tour of the Economic Daily and its multimedia center. The second host of the event was the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB), an organization under the CCP that has itself in recent years transformed into a policy think tank.

The event hosted 11 guests from Europe in all – from Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Estonia, Latvia and Greece. "China's development achievements are obvious to all," one professor from the Poland's Posnan University of Economics and Business was quoted as saying in official coverage. "China has made remarkable achievements in all fields, whether in the cities or the countryside."

Another of the “new think tanks” on the CTTS list, the Center for International Knowledge and Development (CIKD), announced in November 2018 the joint publication with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) – an international financial institution whose shareholders include the European Union and the European Investment Bank – of a research paper on the building of the Chinese-invested Great Stone industrial park in Belarus. The paper, written by the Chinese partner, which is under the Development Research Center of China’s State Council, is a bare-faced endorsement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for which the Belarus park is “a signature project.” “In building the Industrial Park,” reads the report, “the two countries aim to conduct mutually beneficial cooperation for common development, follow the Silk Road spirit, and build a community of shared interest and a community of shared future.”

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The main building of the Great Stone industrial park in Belarus, a “signature project” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Image by Homoatrox available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

In fact, there have been serious questions surrounding the viability of this “signature” Belarus project, including whether it is attractive to Chinese companies. In a report last year for the Berlin Policy Journal, Jacob Mardell profiled Great Stone as a park facing clear questions about its viability, but about which locals remained hopeful. While the CIKD paper notes “multiple challenges” facing the Belarus park, it is bullish in its assessment of the benefits of “seizing opportunities in the BRI cooperation.” The EBRD notes that while the Belarus paper was “produced with the assistance of the EBRD,” the contents are “the sole responsibility of China Centre for International Knowledge on Development and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EBRD.” However, cooperation with the EBRD and the joint launch of the report – which coincided with a meeting in Beijing with EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti – was clearly an opportunity for China to lend greater credibility to the Belt and Road Initiative and its investment activities in Europe. This publication and the events surrounding it are typical of the way China forges connections in order to amplify official state narratives and positions.

China’s foreign policy, and the Belt and Road Initiative in particular, are threads connecting all of the above-listed examples of engagement. Looking at the activities of “new think tanks” affiliated with educational institutions, this focus persists.

In October 2018, the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance participated in an event at the University of Edinburgh called “The Belt & Road Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities.” A notice on the event reported that during the conference, the Edinburgh Futures Institute “signed a memorandum of understanding with the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance” to promote academic exchanges and to “ultimately build a coordination center between Fudan University and the University of Edinburgh on research of the Belt and Road Initiative.”

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The Confucius Institute for Scotland, located at the University of Edinburgh, hosts an event in 2018 to discuss China's Belt and Road Initiative. 

Leaving aside for now the question of the intellectual content and integrity of such joint studies and exchanges, it seems clear that one of China’s key strategies here is to legitimize its signature foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative, by framing it as a mainstream topic of intellectual interest. Pushing such exchanges through “new think tanks” like the Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance allows a level of apparent distance from the Chinese state, making them more palatable in particular to institutions of higher learning in the West that pride themselves on academic freedom and independence.

A “New Think Tank” in Budapest?

A clear point of interest for China in its growing engagement internationally through think tanks is to foster connections with scholars and experts from various regions. And one institute that has served an interesting role in this respect is the China-CEE Institute, a research center formally launched in April 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, and billed by Chinese state media as “China’s first independently registered think tank in Europe.”

The China-CEE Institute does not appear on the CTTS list of “new think tanks.” Despite its exclusion from the list, however, a report on the institute’s launch by the China-CEEC Think Tanks Network – an initiative by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) as a research support mechanism for the so-called 17+1 – stated clearly that the creation of the Budapest-based institute was a “concrete step for CASS in implementing the spirit of the Central Party’s directive on strengthening the building of new think tanks.” It seems clear, then, that the institute is a core part of China’s international think tank strategy as it pertains to Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the launch of the institute received very high-level attention, attended in Budapest by China’s then minister of propaganda, Liu Qibao (刘奇葆), and the news was reported on the nightly official news program on China Central Television.

As the introduction on the China-CEE Institute website makes clear, the non-profit is “a concrete undertaking of the Institute for European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). Situated under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) as one of its 39 institutions, the Institute for European Studies (IES) has long been at the heart of European studies in China — the “institutional epicenter of the field,” as David Shambaugh and others dubbed it back in 2007. The institute publishes the journal Contemporary International Relations, regarded as one of several important Chinese publications for European studies. 

Anasta Vangeli, a researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Science (PAN), noted in a paper last year that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is the “central knowledge actor that studies and establishes linkages with CEE.” Prior to 2004, writes Vangeli, the IES focussed primarily on Western Europe, while studies and exchanges related to Central and Eastern Europe were the prerogative of the Institute for East European, Russian and Central Asia Studies (IEERCAS), another CASS institution dealing with socialist states in the region (and later with post-socialist transformations). European Union enlargement prompted changes at CASS that put CEE studies under the IES.

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Screenshot of the website of the China-CEE Institute in Budapest, captured March 2, 2020. 

Ágnes Szunomár, head of the Research Group on Development Economics at Hungary's Institute of World Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA), has said that CASS originally approached MTA about forming a joint institute, but this idea was rejected due to lack of clarity about how the new institute would operate and conduct research. CASS subsequently decided to go it alone, and the China-CEE Institute was established directly by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a non-profit limited company in Budapest in April 2017.

What are China’s strategic or other goals for this institute?

The stated aim of the China-CEE Institute from the outset was to “build ties and strengthen partnerships with academic institutions and think tanks in Hungary as well as other Central and Eastern European countries.” At the opening ceremony in 2017, Chinese Ambassador to Hungary Duan Jielong (段洁龙) said that the formation of the China-CEE Institute was a "joining up and deepening of 16+1 think tank dialogue and cooperation," referring at the time to China's regional grouping that has since, with the addition of Greece, become the 17+1.

It seems, then, that the primary strategic objective is to build connections with scholars and other important actors across the CEE region, and to do so within China’s preferred framing of the relationship – for example, around the supposed benefits of 17+1 cooperation, the promise of the Belt and Road Initiative and so on.

Socialization Tanks?

The China-CEE Institute is one of many aspects of what Vangeli has called “China-led social interactions that proliferate under the BRI.” These social interactions can have a strong “ideational impact” that helps to support China’s policy goals in the region. In the CEE region already, says Vangeli, “these dialogical processes have involved thousands of politicians, economists, engineers, cultural workers, and, in particular, scholars from both China and its partner countries engaged through BRI.”

While the China-CEE Institute seems to have received little attention in policy circles in Europe or in European media since its launch more than two years ago, it has been very active socially, forging connections with scholars across the CEE region.

According to a recent summary of its activities, the institute hosted 4 international meetings and 3 workshops in 2019, held 7 public lectures, published 10 working papers, 8 books and more than 600 briefings covering 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Greece. Aside from conferences and workshops, China-CEE Institute’s calls for papers and research studies have drawn participation from scholars across Central and Eastern Europe. Our tabulation of China-CEE Institute working papers finds among the writers a total of 51 scholars from 14 countries, including 12 countries in the CEE region. The writers come from a wide range of institutions in Europe, mostly in the CEE region. 

Generally, the quality of the papers published by the institute varies extensively, from papers that can be quite uncritical of projects like the BRI – a “higher accomplishment of modern China’s diplomacy” and a “bright spot in global economic cooperation” – to slightly more cool-headed assessments of the policy and its prospects for success. One of the institute’s key interests seems to be research on public perceptions of China in countries in the CEE region. One of the first public calls in 2018 was for a 60-day research project, for which the institute offered 60,000 euros, surveying perceptions of China in 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including toward the Belt and Road Initiative, 17+1 cooperation, the benefits of trade with and investment from China, and so on.

Research outputs can also serve to amplify the feel-good aspects of bilateral relationships. On September 6 last year, the China-CEE Institute hosted an “academic forum” in Budapest called “Bilateral Relations in a Changing World,” which commemorated the 70th anniversaries of several of China’s bilateral relationships, including with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania. The event, which matched up perfectly with China’s domestic and international propaganda agenda at the time, focussing on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, was co-hosted by the Pallas Athene Innovation and Geopolitical Foundation, an organization under the Central Bank of Hungary (MNB) that has been quite vocal in its support for the Belt and Road Initiative and for closer economic ties with China under Victor Orban’s policy of “Eastern Opening.” Speaking at the event, Chen Xin (陈新), the director of the China-CEE Institute who serves also as deputy director of the Institute for European Studies at CASS, said he hoped that exchanges would “help to promote the deepening of relations between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.”

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Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban arrives in Bulgaria for the 2018 meeting of the 16+1, now the 17+1. Image by China-CEEC 2018 available at Flickr.com under CC license.

The relationships established through the activities of the China-CEE Institute – as well as other “new think tank” initiatives like the junkets for CEE scholars hosted by the China Academy of Economic Trends – can of course help to socialize a range of actors around China’s talking points and agendas. This is an issue on which policymakers, academics and citizens in Europe should be both vigilant and fair. On the one hand, it should be recognized that this process of intellectual socialization is carried out all the time by many non-Chinese institutions and organizations, and activities involving Chinese partners may not necessarily be state-driven or nefarious. On the other hand, understanding that Chinese organizations will likely be increasingly active in Europe, there needs to be much greater awareness of the stakes involved, and this demands both greater openness and an insistence on core values, including academic freedom, openness and transparency.

Openness and transparency are persistent problems where China is concerned, and a number of recent cases have prompted legitimate concern. One of the most egregious cases unfolded last year at Charles University in Prague, when the Czech-Chinese Center within the university's Security Policy Center was found to have received funding from the Chinese Embassy. Among the center's activities was a course for Czech students, financed by the Chinese Embassy, called "Belt and Road Initiative." In Germany, it also emerged recently that the Free University of Berlin had signed a contract with the Beijing headquarters of Hanban, the Chinese institution under the Ministry of Education that administers the now controversial Confucius Institutes, for the funding of an endowed professorship. A clause in the contract bound FU to Chinese law, and included language that made the university vulnerable, critics said, to political pressure.

Compared to these cases, the activities of the China-CEE Institute in Budapest seem relatively transparent, at least on the surface. Nonetheless, the institute has raised questions. Ivana Karásková, of Prague's non-profit Association for International Affairs (AMO), referred recently to the institute as “another example of China’s direct insertion into academic discourse.”

Openness and transparency are persistent problems where China is concerned, and a number of recent cases have prompted legitimate concern.

 

One concern is that Chinese funding for research that clearly frames issues in line with state-pushed narratives may be increasing against the backdrop of insufficient funding for independent China-related expertise in Europe. This is a particular concern in the CEE region. Karásková notes a serious lack of funding for China studies and research programs that can leave countries open to undue influence from China. “The Central and Eastern EU member states,” she writes, “are in general vulnerable given the financial constraints at even the leading universities.” In his study of China’s CEE think tank cooperation, Vangeli also notes that there is a clear imbalance to the “communication infrastructure” China is establishing in the region: “These processes are asymmetrical, in the sense that Chinese actors convene and manage the interaction.”

There is certainly a sense in recent years that Europe is waking up to Chinese influence, and recognizes that it needs to invest in better expertise on China. This should be the start of a process of introducing much greater clarity and symmetry to interactions between Chinese and Europeans. Despite the statist tone of official messaging on think tank development and soft power, there should be opportunities to engage Chinese beyond state-led agendas.

The crucial point for Europe, first and foremost, is to be mindful of its own values, and to insist on these values in any and all exchanges. As a general rule of thumb, European organizations and individuals coming into contact with "new think tanks" and other potential Chinese partners should 1) ensure that they fully understand the associations of these organizations prior to cooperation; 2) insist that cooperation (in research, dialogue and so on) is in keeping with values such as academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas; 3) actively avoid the support (as through now ubiquitous “Belt and Road” projects) of the agendas and frames of the Chinese state, focusing instead on underlying intellectual and policy issues; 4) ensure equal cooperation and balanced contribution from both the Chinese and European sides in terms of program content, financing and staffing, and 5) demand full transparency toward the public regarding the nature of cooperation and the source of funding.

 

2. March 2020
Author
David Bandurski

An expert on Chinese journalism and communication, Mr. Bandurski is currently a part-time researcher at the Institute of China Studies at the University of Heidelberg. He is also co-director of the China Media Project, dividing his time between Germany and Hong Kong. Mr. Bandurski’s books include Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a work of reportage about urban development in China, and Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press).