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Research Centers: Organization And Mission

Lieberthal and Oksenberg identify a set of bodies within or immediately subordinate to the Zhongnanhai (the command headquarters of the Party and government) that they label "Staff, Research, and Coordinating Offices."[14] Among the more prominent of these bodies are a set of research centers on economics, technology, and foreign affairs directly subordinate to the premier's office or to a leadership small group. Unlike the leading groups, these centers are not line organs; they are attached to the premier's office and do not modify the basic chain of command within the


bureaucracy. Six such research centers were established between 1980 and 1982: (1) the Economic Research Center (ERC); (2) the Technical Economic Research Center (TERC); (3) the Price Research Center; (4) the Economic Legislation Center; (5) the Rural Development Research Center (RDRC); and (6) the Center For International Studies (CIS). The first three were combined in 1985 into an Economic, Technical, and Social Development Research Center (ETSDRC). A similar type of research center, which also supplies some advice directly to the State Council, was created under the State Science and Technology Commission: the National Research Center for S & T for Development (NRCSTD). In the aftermath of Tiananmen, the RDRC has apparently been abolished, but the other centers remain in existence. The discussion below is based on data on the structure and workings of these institutions during the period from 1981 to 1986; accordingly, it is written in the past tense, although many of the findings may still be accurate.

As was suggested above, these research centers undoubtedly had several purposes. All were created during the period of Zhao Ziyang's tenure as premier and therefore reflected his purposes in both a policy and a power sense. As Michel Oksenberg has pointed out, the top leadership in China is relatively understaffed, and the research centers in effect provided the premier and other leaders with personal staff.[15] But the centers were not simply personal staff; several became sizable operations with a significant degree of autonomy.[16] Accordingly, even if Zhao established these centers primarily for personal political reasons, they were likely to affect the policy process in somewhat broader ways.

Improving the flow of information from the bureaucracy, permitting some independent evaluation of that information, and enhancing policy coordination were all among the stated goals for which these centers were established, goals reflected in the broader institutional restructuring undertaken since 1982. The official mandate of the centers established three general purposes for them (this varied somewhat according to the specific body): (1) as cross-departmental bodies, to provide an integrated perspective on policy problems; (2) to develop a more long-range planning perspective than would emerge from the bureaucratic rhythms generated by the annual and five-year planning cycles; (3) to serve as a general source of expert analysis and advice for the State Council. Policy coordination was most obviously a key task of the TERC (now the ETSDRC) and the NRCSTD; these two bodies were explicitly


intended to integrate scientific-technological considerations with economic ones and to provide cross-departmental and interdisciplinary perspectives on policy matters.[17] But the coordinating role of all the centers was obvious in their attempts to build staffs with several types of specialists and in their need to draw upon the expertise of a range of functional agencies.

The centers, when established, were formally subordinate either to the premier's office or to a leadership small group. The ETSDRC, for example, was formally subordinate to the Finance and Economics leading group, although center officials stated that the leading group's supervisory role was minimal. During the period when Zhao Ziyang was premier, the centers apparently operated largely as government bodies; their connections to Party bodies were obscure.[18]

Each center had a small staff of researchers (ranging from thirteen in the case of the CIS to about a hundred in the case of the combined ETSDRC) but drew largely upon relevant researchers and staff from outside the center: in ministries, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), universities, and professional associations. The CIS, for example, had fifty affiliated researchers. When the TERC was established, fourteen units from CAS and CASS participated; these units served as a source of research support.[19] The centers established subordinate groups or divisions to address particular research topics or to handle particular types of tasks.[20] However, one of the major perceived advantages of these centers was their ability to organize diverse groups of experts for purposes of obtain-


ing interdisciplinary and interdepartmental expertise;[21] accordingly, the NRCSTD declared that research groups would be formed across divisional lines, according to the nature of the research project, and regrouped when the project was completed.[22] A major difference between the research centers and the commissions, which also cross functional lines, was the nonfixed nature of the former's available research personnel: because they drew on researchers from across the bureaucracy and academia, they could make use of whatever types of expertise were most valuable for analyzing a particular policy problem.[23]

Although they were intended to facilitate the flow of information between the ministries and the premier's office (thereby serving as a link between the two levels), their primary "constituency" was the premier's office, not the lower-level units. This was made clear by their formal location directly subordinate to the premier's office (or, in some cases, a premier-led "leadership small group"); by the fact that their agendas were set either by the premier's or the State Council's office or by the centers themselves;[24] by media discussions of their mandate; and by interviews with officials of the centers, who stressed their relationship to the premier. They thus differed from the many other advisory bodies in the bureaucracy subordinate to particular ministries, which were functionally specialized and tended to see their mission as producing expert analysis compatible with ministerial objectives.[25] Officials of the research centers saw their mission as helping the premier establish "good policy." They possessed an ideology of "neutral expertise" and saw themselves in competition with the more parochial ministries for the premier's attention and approval.


The centers thus differed in three primary ways from other bodies supplying information and expertise to the top leaders. First, they were not as functionally specialized as those other bodies. The ministries are perhaps the most specialized sources of information, but even extrabureaucratic bodies on which top leaders can draw—research institutes of CAS and CASS and university departments—specialize along academic lines that most of the centers crosscut. Second, unlike the commissions, the centers lacked administrative responsibilities; they did not oversee any ministries or need to become immersed in the day-to-day details of policy implementation.[26] Their sole purpose was policy analysis. Third, of all the sources of information and expertise, the centers were the most wholly dependent on the person and office of the premier; as a consequence, they were the most likely to share his perspective on policy. That perspective included certain substantive orientations, such as a commitment to reform; it also included a broader and more integrated view of the country's needs than that possessed by any of the ministries. At the same time, it probably included the premier's political orientations or idiosyncratic desires, which might have little to do with developing coordinated policies. The post-Tiananmen decision to abolish the RDRC presumably reflects a belief that this center remained too closely tied to Zhao in both policy and political ways.

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