Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:43 PM CST – China

Society

Civil Service Exam

FADING GLAMOR

Once-coveted civil service positions are losing appeal as the Chinese government continues to ramp up its anti-corruption campaign alongside an expanding private sector

Test-takers wait to take the civil service exam at Harbin University of Science and Technology, Heilongjiang Province, November 24, 2013 Photo by CFP

One common Chinese saying compares the country’s annual civil service recruitment examination to thousands of people attempting to fight their way across a narrow footbridge. On November 29, huge numbers of applicants took this examination nationwide, but the total number of applicants relative to openings has dropped yet again.

The number of people who take China’s civil service entrance examination, widely referred to as the path to a “golden rice bowl,” a comfortable government sinecure tantamount to a job for life that comes bundled with decent remuneration and social status, is often held up as a barometer that reflects public perceptions of the desirability of such posts and the relative prosperity – or not – of the wider economy.

Registration for the exam ended on October 24, with a record high of 27,000 positions on offer. The number of applicants, however, stood at 1.39 million, marking a drop for the second year in a row. Roughly 50 candidates competed for each position, a historic low and half the ratio recorded during the exam’s second-lowest ebb in 2010. What’s more, only 930,000 candidates actually ended up taking the written test, indicating that the remainder preferred to pursue other employment options.

Among the government vacancies, a position at the Skills Competition Department of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security turned out to be the most popular, with 2,847 candidates competing for it. The competition for this position was much less intense than in previous years, according to official data. In 2013, 9,470 test-takers vied for a single vacancy at the Chongqing branch of the National Bureau of Statistics.

Rejection

Zhao Litang, a 22-year-old material sciences and engineering graduate from a prestigious university in Beijing, currently works in the capital with a monthly salary of 4,000 yuan (US$625), half of which is spent on rent. After work on October 19, his birthday, he received a call from his mother, but he hung up on her minutes later and turned off his phone. She had been trying to persuade him to take the civil service exam, hoping he would leave Beijing and find a job in his hometown.

Zhao was incensed at his mother’s claims that his Beijing salary was even lower than it would be in his hometown. He told our reporter that she also chided him for “suffering” unnecessary hardships. The next day, Zhao wrote on his microblog that “if anybody tries to persuade me to take the exam again, I will blacklist you.” He did not answer phone calls from his family until the national exam period was over. He was sick of hearing about it.

Zhao, like many other recent graduates, spurned the once-coveted civil service exam because of his aversion to China’s bureaucracy. He believes that it is unlikely someone like him would be promoted through the ranks of a government agency without special guanxi, or “connections,” and that it is impossible to become rich in such a post unless one is also willing to be corrupt. He is also turned off by the officials’ habit of what he calls “sticking to the beaten track.”

“Working in a government department is to accept that bad money will eventually drive out good money,” he told NewsChina. “Taking an exam [for a job] which offers low pay and a tiny chance of advancement would be my last choice.”

According to an online survey concerning the civil service exam conducted by Party mouthpiece People’s Daily on October 15, 17 percent of respondents felt that “the appeal of government jobs is waning and [they] would prefer to work for State-owned enterprises or in the private sector, which now usually offers better pay and benefits.”

Zhou Yu (pseudonym), a master’s student, withdrew his registration for the exam at the last moment. He plans to stay in Beijing after graduation and find a job in marketing.

“Public servants usually spend their whole day on work which could be finished in half a day,” he told our reporter. Zhou says he would prefer a job that could make full use of his potential. Money is also a prime consideration. “Nowadays, it is unlikely for a civil servant to be able to afford an apartment.”

Compared to their male counterparts, female candidates tend to prefer government jobs for their stability relative to the private sector. Yang Xue has taken the civil service exam four years in a row, and made it to the interview stage on two occasions, but has so far failed to secure a government post. This year, she abandoned her efforts. “I had to travel a long way to attend interviews in another province – a big burden for someone who has not landed a [well-paying] job,” she told NewsChina.

Yang was born in western Shaanxi Province, attended university in Shanghai and currently works in Henan Province. She said the number of applicants for government jobs has dropped and vacancies have expanded this year, but that does not mean “it is easy to be recruited… The recruitment ratio is dependent on the specific positions and their requirements.” Yang prefers to work in a big city rather than securing a government job in a smaller town, even though such positions are much easier to obtain.

Presently, China has a huge demand for local-level public servants, but these vacancies are relatively unappealing to urban-educated youth – 158 such vacancies for the 2016 intake had no applicants at all. Most of these unpopular jobs were in inspection and quarantine departments or meteorological agencies located in impoverished and remote regions of the country.

Dong Hong, a researcher with the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, said that the national civil service examination previously attracted a lot of test-takers who were after government jobs simply in pursuit of wealth and status. Some candidates, he said, had already “prepared themselves for rent-seeking as soon as they set foot in the civil service.”

Exodus

The ongoing anti-corruption campaign, in full swing ever since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, coupled with the curbing of privileges and welfare provisions for public servants and the streamlining of government administration, has also contributed to the falling number of test-takers, according to analysts. Government posts have traditionally come bundled with comprehensive healthcare, pension and even housing benefits, which, in a country with an underfunded welfare system, were once hugely desirable. The gap between such provisions in the public and private sector, however, has begun to shrink in recent years.

Hu Xingdou, a political science professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said recruitment quotas have fallen as the government has cut bureaucracy. “The campaign targeting the ‘gray income’ of officials also contributes to the decline in new enrollments,” he told the Global Times.

In the opinion of Bai Zhili, an associate professor at Peking University’s School of Government, continuing reform of the civil service system has changed the work style of government agencies, making their employees feel uneasy at the sudden tightening of supervision where once they enjoyed considerable autonomy and authority. Bai added that an “exodus” of civil servants to other sectors in recent years has also contributed to declining interest in the civil service examination.

According to a survey released by Chinese online recruitment agency zhaopin.com in March 2015, over 10,000 civil servants switched to private sector jobs in the first three weeks after Chinese New Year 2015, traditionally one of the busiest hiring seasons of the year. The company said that more civil servants had been “considering quitting their jobs since February,” and this number had increased by 34 percent year-on-year. According to the survey, positions at financial institutions, Internet-related firms and property developers were reportedly the most highly sought after.

College graduates have long constituted the bulk of the government’s potential hiring pool. Official statistics show that China is expected to be home to 7.7 million new college graduates in 2016. Wang Yukai, vice president of the Chinese Society of Administrative Reform, said the downturn in the number of graduates who take the test is a sign of the times. “The decrease has a lot to do with changes in the general environment in China. Nowadays, the government is pushing students towards self-employment and the ‘innovation sector,’ which appeal to young graduates,” he told China Radio International.

According to a 2015 report by MyCOS HR Digital Information Co., a higher education consulting firm, the private sector took in 47 percent of China’s college graduates in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2010.

The 2015 “China Best Employer” report published by zhaopin.com also showed that 54 percent of college graduates “preferred” to work for the government in 2012, but this figure dropped to 49 percent in 2013 and 36 percent in 2014. Conversely, the share of students willing to work for the private sector grew from 35 percent in 2012 to 56 percent in 2014.

In anticipation of the 2016 national civil service exam, more regulations have been introduced, which, in the view of many, have also exacerbated the drop in new applicants. Existing government employees, for example, are no longer allowed to sit the exam. Positions at more central government organs are now only open to applicants with at least two years’ work experience at the local level. New, stiffer penalties for cheating – up to seven years in jail – have also been introduced.

“China is now entering a phrase of transition, and it is difficult to predict the popularity of government positions in the future. Many complicated factors account for the rise and fall of the number of applicants,” Bai Zhili told NewsChina.

Bai went on to say that, over the years, the downward pressure of the economic slowdown has grown, and thus it is “too early to say that the ‘golden rice bowl’ has fallen out of favor.”

“What determines the trend in applications for the civil service exam are macro policies, including reform of the household registration [hukou] system and the overall pattern of economic development, as well as the growth of the private sector,” he said.

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