Chinese turn their backs on once-coveted civil service jobs

Appeal of ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ may be waning as lure of private sector grows

Participants arrive for the national public service examination, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters

Participants arrive for the national public service examination, in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters


Is the appeal of the Iron Rice Bowl waning in China? For hundreds of years, a civil service position was one of the great jobs, earned via a fiercely contested examination based on the teachings of the great thinker Confucius.

Many would-be candidates say the civil service has become less appealing than the private sector in recent years because of the heavy workload and relatively low pay. They also say that Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign makes it less appealing as the pressure in the jobs is greater.

Only 930,000 out of over 1.39 million qualified candidates took the national civil service exam on Sunday. They were competing for 27,000 positions in the civil service, a record number of vacancies, but the average number of applicants vying for each position is the lowest in five years.

Perhaps some candidates were nervous about new penalties for cheating – anyone caught cheating faces up to seven years in prison under new rules.

The civil service exams in many ways personify the clash between the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s, which sees the civil service as a safe haven, and those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are more attracted by the private sector.

The civil service examination system began during the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE) but was fully developed during the Qing dynasty. The system is based upon the Confucian classics and commentaries on those classics.

Guo Hefu (32) who works in sales, took the civil service exams twice, once for a position in Heilongjiang People’s Procuratorate and a second time for a position at the Heilongjiang Administration Bureau for Industry and Commerce. He passed the written test for both positions and failed in the face-to-face interview section.

Mr Guo said the reason he chose to take the test was because it was too difficult to find a job, while the civil service offered job security. “It’s the iron bowl. The salary is stable and I never need to worry about losing my job,” he told The Irish Times.

“I think there is more pressure now because of competition. Also, the written test and the face-to-face interview requires more guanxi (connections) which is more difficult. If you don’t have that guanxi, then you will have much pressure,” said Mr Guo.

“This is what I thought back then: I can avoid job hunting and don’t need to work as hard as in a private company. Maybe the money is not that good, but it is stable and the social status is high. People respect you. I think that’s why most of people took it,” he said.

On the Sina Weibo social network, many younger people said that the private sector was more appealing as it pays better.

One commentator quipped that if the anti-corruption campaign keeps going, then the ratio for applicants per position could become 3:1 next year.

“The civil service is not my top choice,” a senior college student at an exam hall in Beijing told China Daily. “I haven’t prepared for too long but spent couple of days to know the question types. I just wish there’s another option for me since I want to work for a company the most.”