'Gold rice bowl' losing its lustre in China

BEIJING - They are no longer allowed to accept free gifts, free rides or free meals. Even mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival or banquets for Chinese New Year are banned. Little wonder then, that Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive has led to a waning of interest among young Chinese in a career in the government.

Of the 23 Chinese provinces and municipalities that have published the numbers for their respective yearly entrance examinations, 16 received 10 to 37 per cent less applicants.

In coastal Zhejiang province, the drop was 37 per cent: Only 227,000 applied for its March entrance exam, down from 360,000 last year.

The drops, which were also seen in provinces and municipalities like Hebei, Jiangsu, Fujian, Tianjin and Yunnan, reversed the broad upward trend of the past four years.

"The anti-corruption drive is a direct drop in civil servants' income," said Renmin University political scientist Zhang Ming. "And without the extras, their incomes are actually very low."

According to Zhonggong, a nationwide training school for wannabe civil servants, a head of department makes about 3,000 yuan (S$608) a month on an average in the central government, while a head of department at the provincial level makes about 2000 yuan a month.

At the Communist Party's parliamentary meeting in Beijing last month, delegates debated the issue, with several calling for civil servants' pay to be raised. But their calls were rejected by influential figures like former Shaanxi province governor Meng Xuenong, who told the press that his own 200,000 yuan annual income was "satisfactory considering my work".

Prof Zhang and other watchers cautioned against concluding that the "gold rice bowl," as it is known in China, has lost its lustre.

The national civil service examination, which recruits talent for the central government, still had a record 1.52 million applicants for its last sitting in November last year.

This works out to 77 applicants for every one position, up from 65 applications per spot a year ago.

Spots in the central government are more coveted than in provincial governments, due to the higher profile and pay, although there is no official data on the pay difference. A provincial civil servant can "upgrade" to central government and take the central examination, but only if he is appraised highly over a three-year period.

And despite the drop in interest in provincial government service, there are still more takers than jobs. In Zhejiang, the lower number of 227,000 applicants were still competing for only 8,995 spots.

Still, there have been several high-profile cases of senior provincial civil servants taking the leap into the private sector, a practice seen as so unwise that it is termed "xiahai" in China, which means "jumping into the sea".

Guangzhou public security department deputy chief Chen Weicai, for example, made headlines last year after he left the government for a role as vice-president of electric appliances company Zhuge.

But Chinese University of Political Science and Law public administration expert Wang Zhenyu said that an exodus from the civil service, like the one in the 1990s, is unlikely now. Then, China's reform and opening up meant a vast array of opportunities to make money in business.

"Basically, that was a time when you could open a stall by the road and get rich. But times are different now, there are fewer opportunities, competition is keen and it is risky out there."

In China, government service may not longer be a "gold" rice bowl now that the perks have been trimmed, but it is still an "iron" one, whose stability remains a big draw, said watchers.

For young Chinese like Mr Xiao Wei, 24, another reason turns them away from government service: The desire to follow their passion instead of a stable, but staid, path.

The economics researcher took the Jiangsu province's examination last year and ranked second among the hundred or so applicants in his area.

"To me, it's not about pay or perks, as I believe that to be a civil servant, one must be choosing to sacrifice for society and people," he told The Straits Times. "But I rejected it because I wanted to do something true to my heart, that would allow me to realise the true me."

For international relations student Gao Xiangwen, 22, the competition and stress of the civil service examination is more than she is willing to take.

"For my course, we would go for the Foreign Affairs Ministry and it's a very difficult and stressful experience. So I didn't want to go through that and thought that I would do my master's first and see what other opportunities come up," the Beijing Language and Culture University student said.

"Also, the Foreign Affairs Ministry would require you to go for overseas postings. And, for a girl, I don't think that's conducive to settling down and starting a family."


This article was published on April 8 in The Straits Times.

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