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Top level think tank set up for policymaking


By Hou Lei (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2009-04-03 22:50

A top level think tank, established last month following the instructions of Premier Wen Jiabao, is expected to provide suggestions for the country's top leaders and is regarded as a pioneer for think tanks to transform in China.

Former Vice Premier Zeng Peiyan serves as the director of China Centre for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE), now the highest level think tank established in China. 

Many well-known economists like Li Yining and current or former high-ranking officials, including President of China Development Bank Chen Yuan, Chairman of China Investment Corporation (CIC) Lou Jiwei and former central banker Dai Xianglong, have become vice presidents of the Beijing-based center.

"The new think tank is an integration of the International Cooperation Center and another consultation center, both of which are under the National Reform and Development Commission," the 21st Century Business Herald cited a source familiar with the center as saying.

According to the source, Premier Wen believed it is very difficult for policy makers to make the right judgments just relying on the experience and wisdom of a few people under the current complicated economic situation.

Many think tanks have incurred public criticism in recent years for their improper comments and predictions about the economy.

For instance, a famous economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had said that the highest inflation level China could handle was 4 percent, but it turned out that the consumer price index reached as high as 8.7 percent only two months after he made the comment.

Last July, when the oil prices hit a record high of US$147 a barrel, many think tanks in China said it would reach US$200 soon. Five months later, these experts were put to shame when prices plunged to US$35 a barrel.

"Those think tanks make wrong judgments not only because of their lack of professional competence, but also because some of them are connected with 'interest groups' as well," said Jiang Yong from Beijing-based think tank China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

According to Jiang, experts from think tanks affiliated to government agencies have to make sure their comments are in line with the interests of that department.

Some think tanks have even become the mouthpieces of businessmen. Jiang said that a few mine owners from Shanxi province funded some think tanks and asked those experts to make comments that promoted the interests of mine owners.

In addition, it is also known that many researchers at Chinese think tanks make a living by receiving grants from overseas agencies and transnational corporations.

With the current economic situation challenging the think tank system in China, many are expecting think tanks to change. For Liu Kegu, former vice president of China Development Bank, a think tank should be high-level, comprehensive and semi-official.

The newly-established CCIEE is believed to be a model for think tanks' transformation in China.

Liu believes semi-official think tanks are what China needs now after he visited seven famous think tanks overseas, including Research and Development (RAND) and the Brookings Institution.

"Think tanks affiliated to government departments face more restrictions when making comments while civilian ones don't know exactly what the policy makers need," said Liu.

Many members of the center are retired senior officials like Zeng. The status of retired officials could help them approach public issues, while their political experience enables them to understand the requirements of policy makers.

American politicians Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski both had the experience of working in think tanks before and after they worked as senior officials in the White House.

However, the independence of the CCIEE is doubted by some critics since many large state-owned enterprises are funding the center. Jiang believes the new think tank must be government-funded, while Liu said it doesn't matter.

Liu noted that only 65 percent of funding for RAND comes from the US federal government, while the rest is from state governments, private companies, foundations and even foreign governments.

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