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Society & Culture

Chinese Think Tanks: A New “Revolving Door” for Elite Recruitment

Jan 26, 2017
  • Cheng Li

    Director, John L. Thornton China Center, The Brookings Institution
  • Lucy Xu

    Senior Research Assistant, Thornton China Center
“Revolving doors” are a common feature of the American political landscape, helping facilitate the fluid exchange of ideas and expertise between government and non-government. At U.S. think tanks, staffs frequently “revolve” out to engage in government service, while former government officials “revolve” in to take their place. Although the term “revolving door” is fairly new to China, the practice is not entirely unfamiliar. China’s “revolving door” has largely operated in one direction, with retired senior party officials moving into think tanks but the reverse rarely occurring. However, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent remarks and actions suggest that a full-fledged “revolving door” will become a mainstay of Chinese think tanks in the near future.
Over the last two years, Xi has regularly emphasized the need to strengthen and develop China’s think tanks. In April 2016, he delivered a speech articulating his readiness to employ think tanks as a new venue from which to recruit the party leadership. Xi expressed his vision for “agglomerating talent into research institutions” and “breaking institutional boundaries” to allow for an exchange of talent between the private sector, the government, and think tanks. He explicitly noted that the “‘revolving door’ mechanism commonly observed in foreign think tanks was an asset that China should seek to emulate.”
Over the past decade or so, numerous retired Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have gone on to join prominent Chinese research institutes and think tanks. The former executive vice president of the Central Party School, Zheng Bijian, served as chairman to the China Reform Forum, a Beijing-based think tank focused on domestic and international issues. Former state councilor Tang Jiaxuan became chairman of the China National Association for International Studies (CNAIS), and later joined the leadership body of the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE). Former minister of foreign affairs Li Zhaoxing served as dean of both the Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University and the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Institute of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. After retiring as vice premier of the State Council in 2008, Zeng Peiyan became chairman of CCIEE. Similarly, since his retirement in 2012, former state councilor Dai Bingguo has served as chairman of the board of Jinan University and honorary dean of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. These are only a few of the many examples of former CCP leaders transitioning into influential roles in think tanks.
Movements in the opposite direction—from think tanks into government—are decidedly rare. Substantial leadership experience at the provincial and local levels has long been a prerequisite for becoming a top party leader. But in a departure from CCP norms, President Xi has started to appreciate think tank experience when promoting personnel into his inner circle. Notably, two of Xi’s most valued aides have advanced their careers through government think tanks, and they are now primed to take top positions in the party. Wang Huning, a Politburo member and the director of the CCP Central Committee Policy Research Office—who also served as an advisor to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, rose through academia before making significant strides in the Policy Research Office. Liu He, the director of the CCP Central Committee Office of the Central Economic Leading Group, worked at both the State Information Center and the State Council’s Development Research Center (DRC) before assuming his current position. Wang may further advance his political career in becoming a member of the 19th Politburo Standing Committee, and Liu is a candidate to become vice premier and a member of the Politburo. Remarkably, both Wang and Liu became part of Xi’s inner circle as a result of their abilities as thinkers and advisers; neither one has held a leadership position at the local or provincial levels. These cases indicate that Xi has opened the door for think tank scholars to join the top party leadership.
Xi is also widening the door for foreign-educated returnees to join the leadership. In August 2016, a party directive called for members of the Western Returned Scholars Association (欧美同学会, Oumei tongxuehui) to be recruited into the party. Foreign-educated returnees abound at China’s research institutes and think tanks, especially in the fields of economics and foreign affairs. For instance, since as early as 2005, the entire faculty of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University—24 scholars in total—had studied abroad. Other think tanks, such as the Chinese Economists 50 Forum and the China Finance 40 Forum, also boast high returnee representation. Because foreign-educated returnees dominate the rosters at think tanks, Xi’s emphasis on recruiting these candidates carries the potential to institutionalize a system whereby think tanks help channel scholars into the party leadership.
The composition of Xi’s inner circle reveals his confidence in the abilities of foreign-educated returnees to excel in the party leadership. Xi’s roommate in college, Chen Xi, was a visiting scholar at Stanford University in the early 1990s and is currently executive deputy director of the CCP Central Organization Department, in charge of Xi Jinping’s personnel matters. Fang Xinghai, the vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, received a doctorate from Stanford and currently plays an important role in orchestrating China’s financial reform. Both Wang Huning and Liu He, mentioned above, have studied and lived abroad: Wang was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and the University of California, Berkeley, from 1988 to 1989, and Liu received his MPA degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
These are not isolated examples. There has been a clear upward trend in the representation of returnees at high levels of the party leadership. Returnees occupied 14.6 percent of all seats in the 18th Central Committee formed in 2012—an increase of 4 and 8.2 percentage points from the 17th Central Committee in 2007 and the 16th Central Committee in 2002, respectively. Though overall numbers remain small, it stands to reason that as the party further embraces returnees, think tanks will be the prime channel through which groups of policy-oriented, forward-looking leaders will emerge. In other words, think tanks will bridge returnees with the party.
The trajectory of Henan party secretary Xie Fuzhan illustrates the extent to which this phenomenon is already taking place. Xie was a visiting scholar at Princeton University from 1991-1992. Since then, he completed executive programs at both the Harvard Kennedy School and the Cambridge Judge Business School in the 2000s. He has held leadership positions at the DRC and the National Bureau of Statistics and in 2008 became director of the Research Office of the State Council. Altogether, his career in think tanks spans three decades. In 2013, he was parachuted into Henan to become governor. In 2016, he rose to become Henan party secretary, which in turn makes him a candidate for a seat on the next Politburo.

A true “revolving door” through China’s think tanks is still in its nascent stages. Xi’s call to increase the exchange of talent between think tanks and the government and his efforts to bring foreign-educated returnees into the party lay the foundation for think tanks to become a new channel for fostering and recruiting party leadership. The impact of this development requires further study: it may work to Xi’s advantage, allowing him broaden his power base and reconcile his relationship with China’s intellectuals who have been critical of his governance, or it could create tensions between domestically trained and foreign-educated leaders. What is certain is that this new “revolving door” will inject diverse viewpoints and backgrounds into the membership of the 19th Party Congress and beyond, raising a new set of opportunities and challenges for China’s domestic and international affairs.

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