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China's civil service fervor

The Spring Festival of the year of snake, is perhaps a bit different from the years before. With Xi’s promise to target both “flies” and “tigers” in the battle against corruption and graft, there are no more flashy new year banquets and even less extravagant “Nian huo” (special purchases for the Spring Festival) splurge amongst the government offices this year. As the Chinese civil servants are feeling the pressure of the new trend, many civil-servants-to-be are still waiting to pass their final hurdle of the civil Service exams - the interviews and the physical exams before they can hold the “iron rice bowl” themselves as a civil servant.

Candidates of the civil servant exam 2012 exiting the exam hall. Photo: Qiaobao

Whether Xi’s vows to go after the lowly “flies” will change the Chinese people’s deep-rooted high opinion of the job as a civil servant remains to be seen. For a long time, to become a civil servant has been considered as the optimal job by many Chinese. In a CCTV street interview before the 18th CPC National Congress last November, the Chinese gave these answers to the question of how they think of the job as a civil servant. “It’s a secure job.” said a worker. “You get supported by the royal grains. (meaning the government)” said an old man. “They go to work at a leisurely pace, pour themselves a cup of tea, read their paper, eat their lunch, and the day is over…” said a university student.

That is perhaps why every year, people compete fiercely for a job by taking the civil service exams all over China. In the past 11 years, the number of civil servants recruited through the exams witnessed a three-fold increase, the candidate number, however, multiplied by a whopping 42 times. The government statistic for the 2013 civil service exams shows that over 1.5 million people will compete for mere 20,000 odd positions. The chance of winning out is one in 66.

Many who take part in the exams are determined to get a job. “Even if I die, I’ll die in the ‘bianzhi’ (administrative establishment).” A collage graduate who failed the postgraduate exams swore after taking the examination for the recruitment of sanitation workers in Heilongjiang province in January. Over 10,000 candidates competed for 448 jobs as sanitation workers with ‘bianzhi’. 29 of the candidates are highly educated, with Master’s degrees and even higher, 7 of whom eventually got the job.

Wu Kangjian, a college graduate sanitation worker at work on January 8 at Wuyi, Zhejiang province. Photo: Xinhua

Why would they compete for a job as a civil servant which probably means they will experience life in an “elderly home” when they are still in the prime of their lives? The answer is perhaps in the word “bianzhi”. A job within the Chinese government’s bianzhi will ensure that you can have an easy and secure job for life, with much of the incidentals even food and accommodation covered, plus there is an abundance of opportunities for business travels and promotions. Moreover, a job within the ‘bianzhi’ comes with the recognition and acceptance of the society, which will make one the envy of one’s peers and pride of one’s family.

For that very reason, many would pay any price for a job as a civil servant. We learned from 27-year-old Ms. Liu, who just survived a month’s probation at a cadre training organization for the CPC Central Committee Propaganda Department, a rather high-ranking office, that to get a job as a civil servant in places like this, such as the CPC central authority, ministries and commissions, or the local IRS (Internal Revenue Service), customs and the financial departments, the exam is just a formality, it is the interviews that really matters.

Liu, from a small county near Datong, Shanxi province, said that she knew early on that “taking the exams is the only way out for someone like her, who is from an ordinary family of a small place.” This is not her first attempt to change her fate by getting a job as a civil servant. She has tried many times before for a position in various local government offices. “I can get into the top three easily in the provincial level and municipal level civil service exams. But I never passed the interviews.” 

In fact, according to her, without nepotistic supports or backstage backups, there is no way that one can pass the interviews and get the job. She learned in a roundabout way after she’s secured her current job that she came in the fifth in the exams. Luckily for her, the one who ranked first decided to go abroad and the fourth candidate, for some reason, failed to show up for the registration which worked out quite well for her.

Another former civil servant candidate Wang Yu wasn’t as lucky. He still couldn’t get over his failure to become a civil servant two years ago. “Four of us, three postgraduates and one undergraduate competed for this one position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We knew each other’s exam results. But the interview was not as transparent. ” He says. “I admit that my family has used some connections to work things in my favor. That whole month, I spent a lot of time and efforts on dinners and gifts.”

In the end, he lost to the undergraduate with the worst exam result. Wang, who is confident about his linguistic proficiency which is an essential qualification for the job, sighs, “There was only one explanation, that my connection wasn’t as strong as his.”

Cartoon mocking China's civil service fervor. The marjority of the job hunters gather under the sign that reads "civil servant recruitment" while only one struggles to climb the big step with a sign that reads "Career Roadmap". Photo: Qiaobao

Compared to the Chinese young people’s crave for a job as a civil servant, in the west, the young people are generally not eager to take on a civil servant job. The main reason is that the job in those countries is generally low-paid, highly-scrutinized with much less benefits. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev commented on this weird situation in China that the phenomenon of young people striving to become a civil servant is a reflection of the high level of corruption in the country.

Arguably, his words gave a biting and revealing explanation to this Chinese characteristic that is in sharp contrast with China’s status as the second largest economy in the world. Failing to make big breakthrough in its economic reform, China’s market-based economy is still much in the grip of the government. According to the China's National Bureau of Statistics, the increase rate of the Chinese annual fiscal revenue has been higher than that of its GDP for 15 consecutive years. Over one third of the newly increased national wealth is in the hands of the government. 

Under the façade of China’s rapid economic development, the harsh truth is that the rich Chinese government is robbing the wealth from its people who are still relatively poor. That, plus the weak and uneven coverage of China’s social security, the unhealthy job market and unfriendly entrepreneurial environment all added to the Chinese young people’s fervent pursuit for a civil servant job.

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