Here is a noteworthy report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, Beijing Establishes a D.C. Think Tank, and No One Notices.
I would only add to this useful analysis the following: In their publications and public speeches, those who work at Chinese think tanks do indeed tend to be spear carriers for their government, with varying degrees of subtlety and effectiveness. Two opposing extremes were on view, for example, at the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law in Washington on April 2, where the South China Sea was discussed. Dr. (Ms.) HONG Nong made a gentle, respectable argument designed to elicit the attention, if not agreement, of the mostly American legal specialists present. The other Chinese speaker, injected into the panel as a result of pressure from the PRC government, proved a disaster who infuriated the crowd by his blatantly unfair efforts to attack the legitimacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dispute resolution process. He reminded me of Molotov, the Hammer, in the good old days of Stalin.
What the thoughtful Foreign Policy article does not discuss is the valuable roles that Chinese think tanks play in conveying foreign information and ideas to PRC decision-makers and in quietly suggesting their own ideas for consideration. In the current Chinese political climate, the latter sometimes requires courage!