The story appears on

Page C1 - C2

March 23, 2010

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Let's be civil

ONCE many young Chinese aspired to only high-flying, highly paid jobs, and never considered humble civil service. But a government job today has become a coveted "golden rice bowl" and the exam on Saturday is packed. Yao Minji investigates.

Janice Chen, 24, works in a state-owned bank and her fiance will be graduating with a master's degree in finance, generally considered an excellent ticket to success.

But her father wants her fiance to go into the civil service, which he himself left 30 years ago for brighter prospects in the private sector.

The fiance, bowing to her father, has registered to take the exam in Shanghai this Saturday and hopes to work for the government, a secure job. Once termed an "iron rice bowl," today China's civil service is known as a "golden rice bowl."

Around 1 million people around the country are expected to take the exam for 15,000 positions, 2,000 more than last year. About 84 percent of the positions require a bachelor's degree. Ministry of Education and other fields are said to require a master's degree at minimum.

And the notoriously difficult exam is just the first part. There are interviews, a physical and often a background check, for political reliability and solid family background.

Officials say the aim is to upgrade the quality of China's government service - from the central government down to regional and local divisions.

And, it helps young people in a tough job market, but here too the competition is fierce.

"Dad wants the best for me and he doesn't want us to go through all the difficulties he has experienced, especially after the economic crisis," says Chen.

"Plus, a civil servant always gets home on time so that my boyfriend and I will have more time together. My parents never had that time until they got old," she adds.

Thirty years ago her father, today a successful retired businessman, quit his civil service job in the Zhejiang Provincial Price Setting Bureau and boldly went into the import-export business for the challenge, the potential and the money.

In his day, an "official" civil service career was considered stable, though not particularly well paid and definitely lacking in desirable connections and prospects for advancement.

Chen's grandparents today often accuse her uncle, who remains a public servant, of lacking "enough courage and talent" to quit the "iron rice bowl" along with her father and become an entrepreneur.

But today a civil service career is one that the Chen family can be proud of.

The civil service exam has become a legend in China due to its enormous popularity and limited recruitment; passing it and landing a job confer a kind of status.

Once passing the notoriously difficult imperial exam, based on knowledge of the classics and specialty, such as revenue taxation and agriculture, gave scholars a place in the government, and that exam persisted for more than 2,000 years until it was abolished in 1905 in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in attempts at modernization. Working for the government is still considered stable, but not exciting, still lacking in opportunities for significant advancement.

But since the global financial crisis and unnerving economic slowdown (which China has weathered), stability is everything.

Chen says she and her boyfriend support her father's job choice for them "because it is just really difficult to find good jobs these days and we just don't want to suffer the ups and downs."

In ancient China, an official career in government administration was considered the best path for excellent and diligent students. A good post could be a plum, and there was advancement.

For many years, China has followed the Confucian saying: "He who excels in study can follow an official career."

With China's rapid development in the 1980s and 1990s, however, many people changed their ideas. Some civil servants, like Chen's father, quit their secure jobs to go into business and succeeded. They became models.

Finance, business, banks and foreign companies became popular career choices, for the high-income level, status and career potential.

A national survey by MyCOS HR Digital Information Co Ltd shows that only 25 percent of university students who will graduate in June had signed a contract by December 2009.

The average salary of fresh graduates with a bachelor's degree is only 2,172 yuan (US$318) nationwide, it shows. The survey also shows that unemployment is highest in some traditionally popular majors such as international trade, law, English and computer science.

An entry-level civil servant's entry salary can be as low as 1,000 yuan a month, but he or she also can get a housing allowance, transport subsidy, a cash allowance and basic staple foods and necessities and a bonus. It adds up.


Eric Liu, who works in a local tax bureau in Jiangsu Province, says that while his basic salary is only 1,200 yuan a month, he estimates that he actually gets more than 3,000 yuan, not counting staple foods and necessities. Eating lunch at the office canteen only costs 2-4 yuan and he takes the office shuttle to and from work.

The 2009 national civil service exam, for which registration began in November 2008, attracted 1.04 million approved applicants for 13,566 positions. (The written exam was held in December and those who passed then interviewed in February.)

The general passing rate was 1:77, although it differed for each job opening. It was the first time that the number of approved applicants reached one million.

And the 2010 national civil service exam is still ongoing. Written exams were taken last November, attracting 1.46 million, with a passing rate of 93 to 1. It is considered the most difficult exam in China now, far more difficult than the bar exam.

Interviews were held in late January and February. Physical exams are now underway.

"When I just started my bachelor's degree in 2001, it was said that the best students go for the foreign companies. Nobody ever thought about going into government service," recalls Liu, 27.

"But it suddenly became popular when I started my master's degree in 2005. I always hear the legend of some top students passing the civil service examination," he says.

"The civil service examination wouldn't be so popular if other jobs in society offered equally good income and opportunities to advance," says Su Hainan, head of the Institute for Labor and Wage Studies of the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. The ministry is responsible for managing the civil service system and exam; it's China's HR department.

Su attributes the increasing popularity of the civil service examination to the imbalance of the current social distribution structure: There are fewer job options for fresh graduates who want to do well financially - either join a big private or multinational firm, or take the civil service exam.

Su suggests gradually changing the job market structure and developing other jobs that parallel and even exceed official careers in terms of income level, social benefits and social status.

Since one ID is only allowed for registering for one position in the national exam, many applicants try their best to seek a position with fewer applications to ensure a higher passing rate. Often, they don't care about the job description.

"I didn't know, or I didn't really care about what I'm going to do in the job. I applied only because it was one of the few positions that match my major. I just wanted to get in," says the Jiangsu tax collector Liu.

Shocking odds

He is not alone. The most popular position in the 2009 national exam attracted 4,723 applicants for one vacancy. It was an entry level at the Infrastructure Construction Office of China Disabled Persons Federation that has almost no requirements.

On the other hand, some positions that require professional knowledge or willingness to locate in remote and less-developed areas don't get enough candidates. For example, a job in an earthquake bureau or weather center are much less competitive - they require specific knowledge and experience and lots of hard work; they are often in remote areas.

Jobs in government customs service and taxation bureaus are traditionally popular.

Many are attracted to these jobs by the rumored great social benefits, but Liu says it's not a job for everyone.

He has worked in the tax bureau for almost three years. He has wanted to change his job for more than a year, but the decision has been vetoed by his parents, who consider him crazy. None of Liu's relatives or friends is on his side either.

"They all think I'm crazy because millions of people want to get into the civil service now. In a time of economic crisis, this is like a golden job," says Liu, who holds a master's degree in computer science.

Liu took the civil service examination for job security, and he got it. He leads a much more relaxed life than most of his classmates, who went into IT or finance.

He doesn't get much pressure from his daily routine and rarely has to work overtime or on holidays. He doesn't have to worry about getting fired or transferred to a remote area.

The pay is not great, but not bad either, especially considering the benefits - he gets an allowance of several hundred yuan or daily necessities such as cooking oil, rice or meat on most public holidays. He gets a housing allowance, higher than average, and transport compensation. And most important, it is stable.

But he is bored.

Only a few months after he started, the job routine got tedious. He sees the next 50 years stretching ahead with no surprises at all.

"I will continue the boring tasks for years, and then get promoted when I'm old and experienced enough to begin a new, boring higher-level routine. And that will go on until I retire.

"Then I will continue leading a bland and stable life until I die," Liu says. "I'm completely unmotivated and I feel I'm losing mental ability every day."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend