HK think tanks need to play a more significant role in new era

The political environment in Hong Kong has undergone a major change in the past two years or so, with the special administrative region being threatened by regime-change attempts. Fortunately, the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the optimization of the SAR’s electoral system have helped clean up the region’s political landscape.

Both the National Security Law and improved electoral system have decidedly proved effective in ending social unrest, restoring public order, strengthening the rule of law and plugging the loopholes in the old electoral system that allowed anti-China subversives to infiltrate Hong Kong’s governance structure and do damage from the inside.

Those measures have not only removed the destructive forces from Hong Kong’s political space but also afforded the constructive forces more leeway in contributing to the region’s socioeconomic development. In this political space, there is a group of “mind workers” with intellectual strengths whose role should not be overlooked. They are the think tanks.

The engagement of public opinion and scientific research has led to the popularization of think tanks in modern times. “Think tank” is defined by scholar Paul Dickson as an independent, nonprofit research institute that employs scientific methods to conduct interdisciplinary research on a wide range of public policies and advises on policy issues closely related to the government, private sectors and the public. This definition, however, has not accounted for the interrelation between its role and the political environment it operates in, and that is the conundrum that think tanks in Hong Kong have been facing.

The “2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report” suggests there are 29 think tanks in Hong Kong; but the actual figure is larger. Whatever the actual number is, it does not translate into clout; indeed, they have been largely unable to influence policymaking because of the highly politicized social environment of Hong Kong. Think tanks were often subject to attack by various political groups as the political agenda always trumped rational discussion. In the past, moreover, election candidates often competed not on political platforms but on political credits earned in community services. Therefore, most political parties failed to pay much attention to policy research in the past.

Arguably, think tanks in Hong Kong are still in their infancy and have great potential for growth. There are at least three areas wherein they can make a constructive contribution to the SAR’s socioeconomic and political development.

They can serve as the bridge between the government and the public. As an independent institution specializing in public opinion, think tanks are well-positioned to be the intermediary between the two sides. Not only can they ensure effective communication between the two sides but can also encourage the public to participate in policymaking and urge the government to respond to popular demands.

Think tanks are also the “second brain” of the government when it comes to policymaking. The extensive knowledge networks of think tanks perfectly complements the path-dependent way of policy formulation by the governing body. These independent entities can always usher in a creative mindset that approaches social problems from various perspectives. They can provide the government with valuable opinions, backed by credible sources, on some critical issues that concern Hong Kong’s future. Some of their thoughtful suggestions, for example, could even be incorporated into the government’s agenda-setting process.

Last but not least, think tanks have the potential to be the talent pool for the administration thanks to their professional background and familiarity with public policies. Those individuals who are interested in embarking on a political career could possibly be handpicked by the government and join the governing body. On the other hand, officials or politicians may choose to join think tanks when their terms of office are over, so that they can enrich public policy research with their past experience inside the government.

If think tanks manage to play a more active and significant role in the policymaking process, they can certainly contribute more rational and constructive ideas to the new political environment, facilitating the smooth implementation of “one country, two systems” in the long term.

The author is senior research officer of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.