Chinese Grads Shunning Government Careers?

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At a time dubbed “the worst year in history to graduate” by Chinese students, there’s one job Chinese grads aren’t interested in: becoming a government official. According to China’s Ministry of Human Resources (article in Chinese), compared to 2013, 360,000 fewer graduates signed up for the civil service exam during the first quarter of 2014, apparently uninterested in a career that guarantees health benefits, a pension, and the opportunity to advance within the Chinese government.

“The drop is due to rising political cost and lowered expectation of economic return to be an official,” Shen Dingli, vice dean of Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote in an email.

Ever since president Xi Jinping vowed, in a January 2013 speech, to crack down on powerful “lions” and lowly “flies” involved in graft, the luxurious lifestyle associated with government life has become a thing of the past, perhaps deterring future talent from joining the service. During Xi’s year in office, reportedly 40,000 cadres have been disciplined for graft violations and another 10,000 have lost their jobs, allowing the government to recoup $65 billion in illicit “rent” funds, an extra fee charged to perform one’s job. Certain sectors of the global luxury industry have also been hit hard by Xi’s corruption crusade, especially those traditionally associated with gift giving, such as premium spirits and watch brands.

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“Those who were joining the civil service for their own personal gain surely have to think twice about it,” David Zweig, chair professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said. “As the risks are much higher, and the benefits are much lower.”

Prior to Xi’s campaign, whenever Zweig went out with friends from China’s Ministry of Personnel, they attended lavish banquet parties, with separate courses dedicated to hot and cold, meat and fish, and dessert dishes. Since the president’s austerity drive, Zweig’s crew now hold their own tongs at self-serve buffets.

Indeed, in 2012, government officials apparently attended 18 banquets per week according to Communication University of China in Beijing, but in 2013 the weekly number of banquets dropped to an average 12.2.

The rents, rewards and extravagant routine once enjoyed by Chinese officials have diminished, while the chances of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of China (CDIC) catching those engaged in graft have increased.

Previously graft claims against party members were directed to party secretaries at the same bureaucratic level as the members being probed, essentially inviting individuals to bury the case, lest they throw one of their own under the bus. But the CDIC recently reformed its reporting process, so now all corruption cases must be passed to the committee ranked above the individual being investigated, to avoid friends probing friends.

For those opting out of China’s civil service exam this year, the rewards of government work aren’t high enough and the number of arrests aren’t low enough. But what about the honor of serving one’s people?

Survey spokesperson Li Zhong attributed exam disinterest to problems within the service, such as nepotism, unstandardized exam formats, and subjective test scoring. But these are all variables that remained unchanged between 2012 and 2013. Rather, could the drop in prospective officials be a sign that China’s educated class is becoming disillusioned with its government?

Research recently published in Political Science Quarterly actually found an extremely high level of public satisfaction with the Chinese Communist Party. Based on responses from a national random sample of 3,763 Chinese, the average person’s support for the government in Beijing was about 8.0 out of a 10-point scale. Surveyors found that government responsiveness was the main reason for the high level of political trust in China.

Although a responsive authoritarian regime might sound like an oxymoron, since most leaders are not publicly elected, the CCP is paranoid about every protester on the street. Whenever possible the government feels compelled to respond to public demand.

This is the basis of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign—weeding out cadres whose indulgences have already tarnished the party’s reputation among its people. But what if the anti-graft drive has really dissuaded Chinese grads from becoming government officials? For a party whose basis of approval is its ability to represent its people, a decrease in civil servant applicants could be a good thing.

Nona Tepper is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.

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