The large crowds sitting this year’s civil service exams. Photo: Xinhua

Nearly 1.58 million candidates across China sat this year’s recruitment exams for just 85,000 jobs at ministries and state agencies, marking a shift in preference for the security of state employment over perceived as riskier private sector jobs.

The ratio of more than 18 candidates per post made this year’s exam arguably the most competitive one since Beijing rolled out its open recruitment and hiring scheme in the early 2000s. Most of the test-takers were fresh college graduates and students returning from overseas.

On Monday and Tuesday, large crowds at venues across the country shunned social distancing rules as they queued for identity verification before the exams. The tests typically cover language proficiency, document writing, policy analysis and various aptitudes, as well as key Communist Party doctrines and paradigms such as Xi Jinping’s thoughts on Socialism with Chinese characteristics. 

The yawning disparity in pay for government and state-owned enterprise employees on one hand and salarymen in the private sector on the other lays bare the appeal of a government job, referred to as an “iron rice bowl” in Mandarin.

Excluding perks such as free housing, medical insurance and high pension contributions by the government, a civil servant on average could make 90,501 yuan (US$13,779) per year in 2019, up 6.8% year on year.

The iron rice bowl’s allure is not diminished even in China’s tech and commercial hubs that are known for their robust private sectors and high-paying jobs.

The Shenzhen Special Zone Daily reported last month that a local district government recruitment program brought out huge crowds in the southern megacity often hailed as China’s Silicon Valley.

Job security, benefits and a clear promotion path make government jobs attractive. Photo: AFP

Some candidates there worked for tech behemoths such as Huawei and Tencent but they still chose to join the rush as they preferred the security, clear promotion path and regular working hours that government employment guarantees. On average, around 1,269 candidates competed for one job, according to the paper. 

It has also been reported that human resource directors at Alibaba as well as the many entities under its umbrella are seeing thinned out crowds at job fairs or when they go to universities to scout for top talent.

This is after Ant Financial’s mammoth IPO was abruptly scuppered by Beijing amid a regulatory crackdown last month. Now, young, bright job hunters are opting for civil service exams over interviews at Alibaba, even in the company’s home province of Zhejiang, renowned for its burgeoning private economy. 

“In their heyday, Alibaba and other major private firms could even poach talent from the local government and SOEs but that is no longer the case when many businesses are forced to cut their workforce through natural attrition and fewer hirings amid the bleak outlook owing to the coronavirus,” a consultant with the Zhejiang University’s Student Employment Service Center told Asia Times. 

Beijing and local cadres have also been scrambling to create more government openings, even temporary ones and internship posts, to make up for the jobs decimated by Covid this year.

Premier Li Keqiang even told all ministries to put on hold a previous merger and rationalization plan for state agencies and enterprises and instead increase hirings, as seen in a leaked memo on his speech at an October State Council meeting on employment.  

Alibaba’s Tmall hits 498.2 billion yuan in total on the Double Eleven Shopping Festival, setting a new record. In contrast, the company has seen attendance dropping off at its job fairs. Picture: AFP

The shift comes as a rising number of Western-educated graduates head home. China has seen the return of at least 800,000 students after Covid-19 upset their career plans abroad as Western economies and job markets have contracted. 

Among the 1.58 million candidates vying for central government jobs this year, there is a record share of those who had studied abroad with degrees conferred by the world’s top 100 universities and institutions, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security as well as the Communist Party’s Organization Department, which controls recruitment and staffing positions within the ruling party. 

The People’s Daily state newspaper has been quick to equate the surging numbers of Chinese students returning from the West, up by 70% year on year, with the “pull of the humming Chinese economy and the virtues of its political system.”

“When Chinese students witness firsthand the West’s botched response to the coronavirus as well as the political chaos and impasse across many Western democracies, their decision to return is a vote of confidence in the Chinese politics and economy,” noted the party mouthpiece. 

People line up to sit in the National Civil Service Examination in Nanjing city, east China’s Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP

Yet what the paper appeared to omit in related reports is that more than half of the 800,000 returning students are joining their 9 million domestically groomed graduates in the hunt for government and SOE posts at a time the Chinese job market does not look much rosier than in the West. 

Some of the graduates from elite Western institutions even choose to forgo better-paid jobs in the private sector as they favor stability and work-life balance. 

The trend of taking up government employment and the Chinese economy’s emerging brain drain to the state sector portends an even harsher environment for private entities and SMEs when youngsters and excellent graduates aspire to state jobs. 

Eric Mer, an associate professor with the Tsinghua University’s School of Governance, said it remained to be seen if the trend was merely a result of the slump wrought by Covid or it was in line with a trend of private firms being turfed out by SOEs and even the government from key sectors like energy, banking and tech where they were before the pandemic.

“Government occupations are of course more sought-after amid the current crunch time but the government should dole out more help and incentive to the private sector to create and retain employment, as the sector is the lifeblood keeping the Chinese economy ticking,” said the scholar.

“If the government itself becomes the largest employer, it can tell volumes about how anemic the economy and private sector have become.”  

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