Think tanks in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have enjoyed significant attention in recent years, mostly as a result of the Xi Jinping’s well-publicized initiative to build so-called “new-type think tanks with Chinese characteristics” (中國特色新型智庫) in a bid to improve China’s governing efficiency, broaden its soft power capabilities, and build domestic support for government policies. At the same time, due to the opaqueness of China’s policymaking process, think tanks and the materials they publish also usually offer the best opportunity to track current debates and emerging policies.
Given the importance attached to Taiwan policy and unification of Taiwan with the PRC, a distinct set of institutes has emerged to support these goals. The number of institutes active in this field is quite large nowadays, reflecting both the internal development of China’s think tank sector and the intensification of cross-Strait ties over the past decade. This article will skip a discussion of research units that are directly integrated into policymaking bodies like the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) or the office of the Taiwan Affairs Leading Small Group (TALSG), which have already been covered in studies on China’s policymaking towards Taiwan, focusing instead on the activities of organizations that are at least somewhat independent.
Among these, the most important remains the Institute for Taiwan Studies (ITS) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) (中國社會科學院台灣研究所). With a staff of more than 60 people and a direct communication channel to the TAO and the TALSG, it has long been considered the Chinese leadership’s top think tank for background analyses and policy input. In addition to the central CASS organization, provinces like Fujian and Shanghai that have strong economic links with Taiwan also maintain related research capabilities as part of their provincial academies, which advise the local governments in a similar matter. Xiamen University in Fujian also houses the Taiwan Research Institute (TRI) (廈門大學台灣研究院), China’s premier institution for scholarly Taiwan studies. The TRI’s expertise in conducting field research and opinion surveys in Taiwan is made available to the TAO through regular internal reports. In 2013, it established its own think tank as a platform organization, linking up with partners at Shanghai’s Fudan University and ITS at CASS. Further networking among academics and policy makers is promoted by bodies such as the National Society for Taiwan Studies (全國台灣研究會, NSTS), whose leadership includes former state councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國) as well as senior figures in the TAO and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (海峽兩岸關係協會, ARATS). Its regular conferences and symposia offer academics outside of the policy apparatus opportunities to provide input for decision-makers, as well as providing links with sympathetic Taiwanese scholars.
In addition to dedicated Taiwan research units, other major Chinese think tanks like the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) (中國現代國際關係研究院) under the Ministry for State Security and the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) (中國國際問題研究院) under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are also active in maintaining cross-Strait academic ties and policy discussions, often exchanging multiple delegations per year with Taiwanese partners like the Institute for International Relations (政治大學國際關係研究中心) or the Foundation for Asia-Pacific Peace Studies (亞太和平研究基金會). While Taiwan policy used to be highly centralized and compartmentalized from general foreign policy, these boundaries have weakened in recent years, judging from key personnel appointments: Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), the state councilor in charge of foreign policy, sits on the TALSG; foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅) used to head the TAO; and Su Ge (苏格), the president of MOFA’s go-to think tank CIIS, has been described as an influential voice on Taiwan affairs. Most recently, Yang Mingjie (楊明杰), a former CICIR vice president without a background in Taiwan studies, was appointed as the new head of CASS’ ITS, possibly reflecting a desire to review Taiwan policy within the broader context of East Asian international relations.
Meanwhile, think tank exchanges have branched into other issue areas—for example, the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) (中國南海研究院) has identified the eponymous maritime territory claimed by both sides on behalf of China as a shared interest and regularly organizes joint activities ranging from policy discussions to student summer camps. So far, Beijing’s harsh reaction to the Tsai presidency has not disrupted these ties—in fact, the months immediately following her inauguration and the cutting of official ties saw an especially high level of cross-strait visits. This has allowed academics who are advising the new government to take part, effectively and ostensibly serving as the unofficial communication channel that Tsai hinted at last year.
However, whether these institutes are able to exercise genuine influence on Beijing’s Taiwan policy is somewhat questionable, due to several reasons: first, the CCP’s long-standing insistence on a narrow formula for cross-Strait cooperation, its rhetoric, and the passage of the 2005 “Anti-Secession” law have left it with little to no room to adapt its overall strategy. This was on clear display after the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, as Beijing rigidly insisted on her explicit endorsement of the so-called “1992 Consensus” and dismissed her alternative suggestion as an “incomplete test answer.” Second, Taiwan is a supremely sensitive topic in the PRC‘s policy debates, and experts who comment publicly on it are expected to uphold the official line that unification is inevitable and the logical endpoint of closer cross-Strait relations. This makes it difficult to discuss phenomena that run counter to this line, most notably the steady rise of a Taiwanese identity and perceptions of China as a hostile foreign power. Finally, Xi Jinping’s insistence on centralism and ideological conformity has clearly inhibited open policy debates in general and created a climate of fear among intellectuals that is especially pronounced on Taiwan-related questions.
These problems are on clear display when reviewing a few expert reactions to Tsai’s election win and the subsequent confrontation over the “1992 Consensus.” In a panel convened by People’s Daily, experts from some of the abovementioned institutes anticipated and backed the government’s hard-line approach, arguing that the shift in power between both sides made an agreement on the PRC’s terms inevitable. This forms a stark contrast to the view of most Taiwanese and international observers, who believed that punishing Taiwan for its electoral choice was likely to backfire and solidify anti-Chinese sentiment on the island. Likewise, an ITS expert commentary attributed the election result to KMT infighting and a lack of political conviction rather than any problems with Ma Ying-jeou’s cross-Strait approach, despite the clear evidence that the KMT’s fortunes declined dramatically after the 2014 Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) confrontation.
Overall, the role of Taiwan-focused think tanks exemplifies the ongoing efforts and challenges faced by the CCP in making the country’s governance more “scientific” while retaining its one-party rule and tightening the ideological screws. Whether this approach, and the policies it produces, will turn out to be successful is very much an open question.
The main point: The making of Beijing’s Taiwan policy is supported by an impressive array of research institutes and experts. However, the leadership’s self-imposed rigidity on this issue and tightening ideological constraints severely hamper its effectiveness in promoting innovative policies.
 Kevin Cai, “The Evolution of the Institutional Structure of Beijing’s Taiwan Policy Making Since the Late 1970s,” in Kevin Cai (ed.), Cross-Taiwan Straits Relations Since 1979(Singapore: World Scientific, 2011), 235 f.; David Lampton (ed.), The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 302 f.
 David Shambaugh, “China’s International Relations Think Tanks: Evolving Structure and Process,” The China Quarterly 171 (2002): 575-596.
 Bonnie Glaser and Phillip Saunders, “Chinese Civilian Foreign Policy Research Institutes: Evolving Roles and Increasing Influence,” The China Quarterly 171 (2002): 597-616.