Why are civil service jobs so attractive to Chinese youth?

Dun Mao, of Fudan University in Shanghai, looks at the broader implications of the Chinese civil service’s magnet for talent

In recent years, Chinese youth have shown an increasing interest in finding a “red-collar job”, which in China means a civil service job.

According to the BBC, 1.4 million young Chinese applied for the civil service exam in 2010 while there were only 16,000 positions on offer, and that was only for the central-government departments and institutions.

If applicants for civil-service vacancies in local governments were included, the number of candidates involved could be astonishingly huge. The exact figures for the local governments are still unclear, but one thing is: the desire of young Chinese to get into “the establishment” is unabated.

The pressure of numbers

The competition for positions varies, according the “power” of departments. It is usual to have between 500 and 1500 applicants for every post advertised, but the most wanted positions include a place in the National Energy Administration (4,261 applicants for one job), and one place in the Ministry of Culture (3,556 applicants). In an extreme case, 4,961 people were contending for a position in the National Energy Administration.

Why are civil service jobs so attractive to Chinese youth? Looking for a stable and easier job could be the short answer. The employment market in China gets more and more competitive every year: in 2009, almost one-third of all graduates remained unemployed, and many of those who found a job had to accept a lower starting salary. In 2010, the graduates in big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, were willing to take jobs with a starting salary as low as 1,600 yuan (US $240) per month.

Golden rice bowl

Although the basic salary for a low-ranking government official might not be much more generous, job stability, working benefits (such as free medicare and subsidies on transportation, and a lifetime pension) should be factored in. Moreover, there are always the expectations of promotion – the basic salary is linked to your ranking, not to mention the so-called “gray income” (hidden benefits) connected to power. Thus, it’s no surprise that the civil service has been seen as the “golden rice bowl” by the young.

There are also traditional and cultural reasons for the phenomenon. Historically, the purpose of education in China has been described as “to cultivate oneself in order to rule the country”. In China’s dynastic history, not only should one seek learning in order to become an official, but all officialdom is the natural outlet for good scholars. Becoming a governmental official has been portrayed as almost the only good career for a young man. Thus, the current phenomenon of the civil service exam is an illustration of the revival of Confucian tradition.

Wealth generation

The optimistic view argues that, with more competent people with aspirations working in the government, China can improve the efficiency of its governance and reduce corruption.

However, the counter-argument suggests that if the most talented of Chinese youth make it their priority to work in the government, the private sector, including foreign companies, will have less competent graduates to choose from.

Most importantly, if the talented young people only want to play the “game of power” within the establishment, rather than engage in jobs that create social wealth, or participate in public issues in the non-official public sector, such as an NGO, the social progress of China will eventually stagnate.

From an intergenerational perspective, future generations could well be better served if the cream of Chinese youth is encouraged to pursue wealth generation in the private sector, rather than the comforts of a traditional career as a “red collar” worker. But the sheer numbers of people clamouring to join the civil service suggests that this is not concern of the current generation.