In a recent article, Zhang Boshu, political philosopher and constitutional scholar, shared his own experience at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s largest think tank.
‘Soft power’, or currencies of ideas, values, culture, policies and institution, is now a buzzword in Beijing’s foreign policy circle. Despite China’s growing weight in the world, the Communist Party is concerned about its soft power deficit. It is therefore, for example, injecting an estimated $4 to 6 billion into the global expansion of its state media.
Beijing is also zealously promoting the development its think tanks, cradles of social policies and political strategies. China organised the Global Think Tank Summit in July 2009, which included former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to discuss the future development of the world economy. According to a study conducted by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, China now boosts 428 think tanks, ranked number two in the world behind the US, which has 1,815.
In terms of the number of researchers, it is even more impressive. Mark Leonard, executive director of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, was surprised to learn that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China’s largest think tank, has 4,000 full-time researchers. He reckoned that Britain’s entire think tank community is numbered in the hundreds, Europe’s in the low thousands, and the US could not have more than 10,000.
But the workings of China’s think tank community is less well documented. One important aspect is that China is not an intellectually free society. There are certainly limits on what could be discussed, particularly about the political system. Zhang Boshu, a political philosopher and constitutional scholar, has recently written an article providing some valuable insights about his own experience at CASS.
Zhang joined CASS in 1991 as an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy. He was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian rule in China and a strong advocate for universal human values like democracy. In 1993, he published an article critical of the government’s 1989 crackdown. On 21 December 2009, he was asked to leave his post at CASS on grounds of his repeated ‘absence without leave’. However, he believed that the real reason is that his numerous articles advocating constitutional reform has exceeded the tolerance limit of the Communist Party committee at CASS.
The ‘Assistance Committee’
Reflecting on his history of conflicts with CASS, he recounted his experience of the ‘assistance committee’, organised shortly after the publication of his dissident article in 1993:
My first conflict with CASS happened in 1993, two years after I joined. The direct reason was my publication of a short academic article in the Hong Kong magazine Twenty-first Century. The article is an unremarkable piece entitled ‘My Opinion on Critical Thinking and Building Awareness’. It is an intellectual debate with Taiwan scholar Lao Siguang, and was published in the ‘Criticisms and Responses’ section of the magazine. A few sentences talking about the June Forth event brought me big troubles.
The institute responded rapidly after my article’s publication. I remember it was a Tuesday, a ‘day of visiting the institute’ (researchers at CASS do not sit in offices; they only visit their institute once or twice a week). The institute has specifically organized an ‘assistance committee’, offering ‘assistance’ to me. Everyone, including all researchers and leaders, was present.
The committee was conducted in a peaceful manner, and the speeches by Director Chen and [Deputy Director] Li were moderate. Except one person, my teacher Xu…… In the committee, he was very hostile and critical towards me, and disapproved of me loudly. His speech contrasted sharply with those made by the others. I, of course, know well clear that his ‘just’ criticisms towards me was not out of ‘assisting’ his student, but rather to protect himself and prevent his student’s mistake from affecting his political future. Therefore, he put on this political show.
After the ‘assistance committee’, the institute’s Communist Party secretary Fu approached me, and said that the Academy viewed the matter seriously. ‘This is a matter of principles.’ Nevertheless, the Academy prompted the institute to organize this committee, with the aim to ‘cure the disease’, and hoped that I acknowledged it.
What kind of institution is the CASS?
Zhang also provided some helpful accounts of the CASS:
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established in 1977. Its predecessor was the Philosophy and Social Sciences Department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This model was copied from Soviet Union, which also established a Philosophy and Social Sciences Department under the Russian Academy of Sciences. North Korea and Romania once used this system as well. Till now, older people in the Academy still use the word ‘Department’ when talking about CASS.
Since CASS engages in social sciences, it should of course be a professional academic institution. However, under the present political system, CASS also functions as an ideological institution, propagating party’s policies and principles, and serving the party’s purposes. CASS, directly under the State Council, is a ministerial-level unit. Each research institute of CASS is a bureau-level unit. Every province and municipality directly under the central government also has its own social sciences academy, albeit with a lower administrative rank. At present, CASS has several dozens research institutes, over a hundred journals, various ‘research centres’, and several thousand researchers and administrative staff. Each year it spends several hundred millions of government funding.
Since CASS is first and foremost an ideological institution, it being led by ‘leftist’ or party officials should not come as a surprise. But this is after all a place where talents gather. At CASS, He Lin, Jin Yuelin, Zheng Zhenduo, Qian Zhongshu and Lu Shuxiang were all leading scholars in their respective field. CASS has also produced dissidents like Gu Zhun and Li Shenzhi. During the 1989 democratic movement, CASS was known as a ‘crisis area’. Many researchers and ordinary staff were participants of the demonstrations. Over ten bureau-level cadres at CASS were punished. But overall, CASS is the Communist Party’s ‘imperial academy’. It must listen to the party; as a result it has produced numerous party mouthpieces.
To be fair, the Chinese intelligentsia is becoming increasingly open, particularly in the economic fields where policies are debated and the government is constantly experimenting with new ideas. However, certain topics in the political arena remain firmly out of the boundary. In the name of ‘harmony’, independent voices are constrained and silenced. When soft power is about having a persuasive set of ideas and values to the world, it does not sound very persuasive when China is suppressing its own people’s voices. Perhaps the answer to China’s soft power deficit lies closer at home than abroad.