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China Daily Website

Hands on the talking stick

Updated: 2013-05-10 11:04
By Todd Balazovic ( China Daily)

Engagement levels

The sudden increase in the number and size of think tanks has also given rise to a level of discussion unavailable earlier.

Hosted in Zhejiang by IAS in 2011, the first China-Africa Think Tank Forum attracted more than 300 government officials, scholars and researchers from across China and 27 different African countries. The second was hosted in Ethiopia in October 2012.

CATTF is one of the few non-governmental diplomatic channels for China's cooperation with Africa, Liu Says.

It is conferences like CATTF that are the true calling for think tanks platforms to exchange ideas, understand one another and, most importantly, discuss policies that could influence how the two sides interact.

"We are looking to generate policy recommendations for the sustainable development of Sino-African relations in the new era, to benefit the Chinese and African people," Liu wrote in his summary of the second conference.

Topics discussed at the most recent conference ranged from China's role in peacekeeping between Sudan and South Sudan to how Zambia's 2011 election has impacted China-Zambia relations.

While fresh faces have added vigor to discussions between China and Africa, it has also changed the way some of the nation's oldest institutions approach their research.

Li Anshan, director of the Center for African Studies at Peking University, is quick to point out that China's interest in Africa and involvement with some of China's earlier forms of think tanks date back decades before the lucrative draw of political strength and economic resources were on the table.

"Many people now want to focus on China's business interests in Africa; what they don't realize is that China's interest in Africa goes back far before we ever had developed our own economy," Li says.

Like most scholars, his office is packed from floor to ceiling with reading materials, overflowing from shelves onto tables and chairs.

Digging through his archives, Li produces a set of three tattered yellow books the first comprehensive history of Africa written by Chinese scholars, published in 1996, he says.

The books put into perspective how quickly China's think tanks have gone from a mission of simply trying to understand a foreign land to one where helping research policy is an active goal.

Beginning with the first scholarly exchange between China and an Egyptian University in 1955 to the publishing of the first history of Africa written by Chinese scholars in 1996, the first four decades of think tank activity was focused on Africa itself.

"The task of this research was just trying to understand what was going on in Africa," says He Wenping, director of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the nation's oldest Sino-African think tank, established in 1963.

"Previous generations of scholars worked on African socialism and the history of independence, all focused just on Africa. It was not China-Africa, but only Africa itself."

With the creation of FOCAC in 2000, the changing role of think tanks has been accompanied by eager ears from people in power, and now more than ever decision makers are willing to engage with think tanks to direct their own policies.

"I have been doing African research for many years now. But during the first 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, the chance to work with other decision makers was not so frequent. Information exchanges between academic circles and policymaking circles were also not so smooth," she says.

The reasons behind the disconnect are two-fold: first because much of the research was focused more on social aspects of Africa; and second because China-Africa relations did not hold the same importance as today.

"At that time we focused mainly on Africans' daily life, doing research on African philosophy or different ethnic groups. so it was not so highly related to policy," she says.

"Nowadays, the concept of China-Africa has become extremely important and the information flow between think tanks and policymakers has grown with more collaborations."

She says having more resources available to send Chinese researchers to Africa has also played a major part in bridging policymakers and think tanks.

"Previously, our first generation of think tanks didn't have the resources to travel to Africa, so much of their views of the continent were based on what they would read in academic materials," He Wenping says.

"But you cannot gain a true perspective of Africa unless you travel there, see the people and do your research on the ground."

China's newfound economic strength and interests abroad have fueled a new generation of researchers that have had the opportunity to travel to Africa, in turn allowing them to offer fresh and more relevant perspectives to policymakers.

In the past five years their research has evolved beyond just guiding policy to include trade and investment aspects between China and Africa.

"More recently, we've received mandates from import-export banks, national development banks and even some coming from companies themselves. They approach us if they want to move to Africa but need to understand more about the social-political environment," she says.

With China's modern think tanks wielding more policy power than ever, their arrival in Africa has impacted the overall think tank landscape in a continent previously dominated by Western operators.

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