The Iron Rice Bowl Is Back: Why Young Chinese Want to Be Civil Servants

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WANG ZHAO / AFP / Getty Images

A Chinese university student waiting to take an exam in Beijing on Jan. 5, 2013

When officials in the city of Nanjing invited applications for a clerking post in the municipal government’s court system last month, they expected plenty of interest in the much coveted civil-service positions. But even they were suspicious when their in-boxes filled up with applications from Hollywood starlet Zhang Ziyi, pinup Fan Bingbing and table-tennis champion Liu Guoliang. An internal investigation quickly revealed that one enterprising young candidate for the position, a Mr. Wang, was so desperate to get the job that he had filed more than 100 fake applications — 50% of the total number received. Wang apparently believed that his real application would stand out all the more amid a sea of phonies and that rivals would be scared off by the number of applicants ahead of them in the queue. His cunning plan almost worked — he got noticed — but once authorities discovered what he’d been up to, they banned him from applying to the civil service for the next five years.

So while Zhang is apparently not yet ready to trade in the glamor of Hollywood for a desk job in the Nanjing government, Wang’s desire to land a civil service post is representative of a major shift in attitudes among China’s best and brightest. For years, the civil service was seen as a career dead end, a graveyard of ambition that offered job security but little else. Since economic liberalization took off in the 1980s, ambitious workers have flocked to the private sector in search of better pay and prospects. The phenomenon even has a special name in Chinese — xia hai or “returning to the ocean” of private business.

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But over the past few years, applications to the civil service have begun to surge: 1.5 million people registered to take the 2013 entrance exams, an increase of nearly 15% year-on-year. And competition for the most-coveted government positions is intensifying. In one much discussed example in October, more than 9,000 (apparently real) people applied for a single job in the municipal Statistics Bureau in the megacity of Chongqing.

As the applications increase, the caliber of applicants is also increasing dramatically, according to Liu Xin, a professor at the Institute of Organization and Human Resources at Renmin University. “In other countries like the U.S., talented people would never choose to work in the civil service — the private sector is always their first choice,” he says. “But in China, it’s the exact opposite.” More and more talented young people are signing up for government jobs, he says.

Many, like Xinjiang native and Beijing resident Krystal Na, are turning their backs on burgeoning private-sector careers to do so. In 2010, the 27-year-old decided to quit the white-collar rat race in the capital and join the hundreds of thousands of other ambitious young Chinese people looking for a better quality of life. With a degree from a top school, a glamorous job at a broadcasting company in Beijing, Na was not an obvious candidate for a job as a low-level bureaucrat. But, she says, the attraction of an easy 9-to-5 job with guaranteed pay and solid benefits was one that she couldn’t turn down. “The pressure of life in Beijing was intense,” she remembers. “I was so busy I couldn’t even answer the phone when my parents called.”

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According to Renmin University’s Liu, that guarantee of job security is one of the key factors driving the renewed interest in the public sector. That guarantee has become increasingly important as the global financial crisis bites harder in China. “As a civil servant in China, unless you quit or make a big mistake, you have a job for life,” he says. “It’s the iron rice bowl. That’s especially important during an economic downturn.” Another plus is that state-sector workers routinely receive free food, free local transport and special access to cheap housing, paid holidays and other perks.

After weeks of study at her local library, Na passed the notoriously difficult exam. Soon she was off to join the municipal government in a small town in the heart of the vast and barren Taklamakan Desert of her home province of Xinjiang, leaving her well-paid job and the bright lights of Beijing behind. “I just thought as long as I work hard, I’ll have a steady income, I’ll be able to afford a house and everything will be fine,” she says. Assigned to the local Trade and Industry Bureau, she spent her days traipsing from store to store scouring the shelves for out-of-date products. “It was completely different to what I expected,” she recalls. “It was so remote, and there were sandstorms 280 days a year.”

Six months after taking up her post, Na walked away from the iron rice bowl. She’s now back in the private sector working for an advertising company in the provincial capital of Urumqi.

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