17 August 2019
Candidates waiting outside a civil service exam venue in China. Photo: Xinhua
Candidates waiting outside a civil service exam venue in China. Photo: Xinhua

For Chinese graduates, govt jobs remain a safety net

Beijing’s austerity and anti-graft campaign has made government jobs less attractive in terms of monetary gains and “other benefits”. There had been signs earlier that the rush for civil servant jobs would abate, but the latest figures suggest that such conclusions may have been premature. 

State news agency Xinhua has reported that 1.52 million people took the recruitment exam for state-level civil service posts this year, for just 20,000 vacancies on offer.

Since a large proportion of exam candidates are college graduates, it could mean that one in every five still wants to work for the government.

In 1994 when China began to trial exam result-based recruitment for civil servants, the exam — which usually comprises an aptitude test and a policy essay — attracted only about 4,400 participants. Before that, all vacancies were filled through internal promotion and referral by other government employees.

A deputy director at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, who was among the first batch of civil servants admitted through such exams, told the Economic Observer that when he decided to register for the exams two decades ago, many were genuinely patriotic and wanted to serve the country. Now, most candidates just want to land a job that is decent and stable.

Among the many benefits of working for the government is housing allowance or even government flats sold at discounted prices. The deputy director was lucky enough to seize the last chance to buy a 70-square meter condo in downtown Beijing at just 1,000 yuan (US$162) per square meter in 1999. In 2009, he sold the flat at a fair market price of 20,000 yuan per square meter.

Such programs were called off by the State Council in 1999, but some local governments are said to be still offering de facto subsidized housing for civil servants through local state-owned enterprises. 

In recent years, the remuneration gap with the private sector has also grown wider. Many private firms are offering higher wages, in some cases several times the level seen in government jobs.

At the same time, cadres are given fewer hidden coupons and allowances, and sometimes even receive pay cuts, following President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft drive.

Since most government jobs now are without subsidized housing and salary increment is stalled in the face of the austerity campaign, why are people still scrambling for a position inside the government?

One reason is that a government job is still well-respected by many in the society and just like college entrance exam, civil service exams can be a relatively fair means for ordinary people, especially college graduates, to move up the social ladder.

And, most such jobs are immune from economic upheavals and layoffs, and the “iron rice bowl” nature with cradle-to-grave security still appeals to job seekers. Many opt for a stable salary, rather than plunge straight into the private sector where there can be a lot of uncertainties.

It’s also worth noting that some civil servants are retaking the exams in a bid to seek transfers to more senior positions or to larger cities as state and provincial-level posts are open to all candidates nationwide.

Thus, government job vacancies in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong and Zhejiang or at some well-funded departments and bureaus for foreign trade and tax and financial affairs usually attract overwhelming number of applicants who are already civil servants elsewhere in the country.

Another reason is that, as a college graduate from the China Youth University of Political Studies told Xinhua, many graduates from prestigious institutions plan to work at the government for a few years to build connections and polish their career history before joining the private sector or foreign-invested firms.

In their new jobs later, the people can leverage their knowledge of government procedures and decision-making systems, rebooting their career prospects.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Many who take the China civil service exam want a job that is both secure and well-respected, although the income may not be as high as it used to be. Photo: Xinhua

EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe