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China Daily Website

Hands on the talking stick

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

Solid foundation

While US and European think tanks have established a solid foundation across many African countries, the focus of Western institutions differs from those of China-Africa think tanks, says Enrique Mendizabal, founder and director of Mendizabal Ltd, an independent research organization geared toward think tank analysis and author of the On Think Tanks blog.

"(Chinese think tank) research is far more nuanced than what is being studied in the US/EU think tanks today," he says.

"(In the West), the focus is mostly on aid and how to 'save Africans'. Chinese think tanks are more interested in studying and understanding Africa in order to work better with them."

He believes the difference in approach, one of understanding rather than how to provide aid, will give China an edge when it comes to learning how to engage with Africa in the future.

And while the direction may be attributed to larger influence on and funding for China's think tanks from government, Mendizabal argues the government role has less influence over researchers than many outsiders would believe.

"Think tanks in China are not far from the German model, where the state funds most think tank activity," he says.

"In China, funding and political control is certainly stronger but think tanks and, in particular, individual researchers are freer than we would expect them to be."

James McGann, author of the Global Go To Think Tanks Report and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that China has taken a different approach to Africa than most Western countries.

His report, which ranks the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences at No 17 in the top 150 think tanks globally in 2012, is the only comprehensive global think tank ranking system.

He says that the rise in the number and influence of China's think tanks reflects the long-term strategy of China on the African continent.

"China's policy wonks and policymakers are taking the long view and see opportunity where others see crisis and chaos," he says.

McGann says there is a natural link between China's demand for energy and raw materials and Africa's ability to supply it, while China's offer of growth to Africa's agriculture and light manufacturing industry has already given the nation a strong upper hand in Africa.

"China has now replaced the UK as the most influential economic force on the African continent," he says.

"To support this grand strategy, China's national and regional, university and Beijing-based think tanks have provided the intellectual muscle that is guiding China's aid, trade, investment and development policy in Africa."

While they may have more influence now than a decade ago, many of the nation's China-Africa think tanks are still adapting to their new role of policy influencers and there are many areas where improvement still needs to be seen.

Though China is not the only nation where think tanks are largely state funded, Liu of Zhejiang Normal University's Institute of African Studies says in coming years, this is one area that could see improvement.

"Chinese think tanks are often operated as the institutions of government and thus the independence of financing and personnel management need to be strengthened in the future in order to better play the role of think tank," he says.

Second, he says that institutions like theirs still have a long way to go before obtaining the level of international recognition seen by US and European think tanks.

Hands on the talking stick

He says this is largely due to the particularity of the Chinese language and culture.

Still, as the world watches and waits to see the global impact of China and Africa's growing relationship, for now there are at least those willing to seek the truth in order to provide the information needed for governments to make the right choice.

"From the Confucius times to nowadays, intellectuals and their books have had great impact on the state's governance," says Liu.


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