Being an international civil servant is the career dream of many young people around the world, and China is no exception. But how can a young, talented Chinese citizen find a job in an international organization?
Traditionally, there were two channels. Let’s take an international organization within the UN system as example. If the Chinese job seeker lived outside mainland China, either working or studying, she, as a Chinese citizen, could apply for the job by following the normal application procedures and submitting her application directly to the target organization. After being hired, she would be an international civil servant with a Chinese passport. This channel is no different from that used by job seekers from most other countries.
But if she lived inside mainland China, the procedure would have been more complicated. She would first have had to attend a nationwide competitive examination organized by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS). Theoretically, the examination is open to all qualified persons. However, the “call for examination” is usually circulated among a very limited group, so most attendees of such exams are actually already working for the Chinese government. Once she passed the examination, she would gain the status of “reserved talent” as an international civil servant. But this “reserved talent status” would not secure her a position in any international organizations. Her job in those bodies would still depend on timing and an executive decision from MHRSS. Since every international organization within the UN system has a “matching agency” (dui kou dan wei) in the Chinese government, when seeking to hire civil servants from China, the international organization would send the demand to its Chinese matching agency, which would then request MHRSS, which is in charge of the pool of “reserved talents,” to send an appropriate candidate out to this organization. MHRSS would hold pre-departure training and handle necessary administrative jobs (such as keeping the personal profile) for this candidate.
This complicated and semi-closed selection procedure is not only tedious and time-consuming, but also blocked many talented Chinese from seeking job positions in international organizations. For a very long time, despite China’s large population and economic status, Chinese civil servants have been under-represented in the staff of key international organizations, with fewer representatives than other developing countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil, not to mention developed countries like Japan and South Korea.
However, over the last few years this situation has started to change. Although the traditional procedure has been left untouched, the Chinese government, the third largest contributor to the UN budget, has been considering the question of how to send more Chinese to work in the UN system.
Some universities have started to invite retired Chinese civil servants to deliver lectures, talking about their personal experiences in international bodies and attracting young students’ interests in such jobs. For example, Song Yunfu, a former senior external official with the WHO; Bai Bin, who used to work for UNICEF’s Beijing office; and Wu Hongbo, the former under-secretary-general of the UN, have all been invited to deliver such lectures to the public, in particular to young college students.
In addition to these small changes from the bottom up, there have been some institutional efforts to incentivize talented young Chinese to step into the profession of international civil service. At least two approaches are quite salient. First, the Chinese government provides financial support for Chinese citizens’ internships in international organizations, which would otherwise usually be unpaid. To encourage Chinese citizens to intern in such organizations, in 2016 the China Scholarship Council (CSC), a nonprofit government-run agency directly affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, launched a scholarship to sponsor Chinese interns. So far, CSC has established cooperation with at least seven international organizations. In addition to transportation support, each intern can, depending on where they are dispatched to, get a stipend from the Chinese government ranging from $800 to $1,600 per month.
Another approach has been to establish degree programs with a special emphasis on global governance and public administration. For example, the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, one of China’s best colleges in the discipline of public administration, recently established two such degree programs jointly with foreign universities: a Master of Public Policy for Sustainable Development Goals with the University of Geneva and an MPA in Big Data for Public and Global Governance with the University of Washington. Obviously, these programs are not hiding their ambition to train Chinese young people to be qualified international civil servants. Both programs target emerging areas in global governance. That they are joint programs is another strength, because this provides students with a broader range of worldviews and a unique cross-cultural experience. Geneva is also a perfect location, facilitating students’ approach to international organizations. In the coming fall, both programs will welcome their first classes of students and no one can doubt the determination of these young Chinese to start their careers in the international arena.
With these institutionalized efforts, the traditional selection method for international civil servants is beginning to be reformed. Many believe that a more open and transparent selection method will emerge in the coming years so that more talented young Chinese (and an overall better quality of applicant) will get the chance to work in international organizations.
Why China is now showing a more supportive attitude toward sending its young citizens to international organizations? The answer is simple: China still firmly believes in the power of international institutions.
No doubt, China, as the world’s second largest economy, actively seeks a greater international presence. Along with its northern neighbor, Russia, China initiated the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001. In the past decade, China has played a pivotal role in driving progress toward real cooperation among the BRICS countries. Under Xi’s leadership, China’s involvement in regional and global affairs goes even further, with the initiation of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. These efforts led some Western observers to believe that China is building a “much bigger master plan” to replace the “U.S. and European dominated international institutions.”
But drawing that conclusion obviously misses another part of the story. It is true that China is building new international bodies. But this does not mean that China plans to revolutionize the global political and economic order by quitting the current international bodies and replacing them with brand new ones. On the contrary, China continues to show great enthusiasm for the current system and actively participates in it.
By sending more talented Chinese citizens to existing international organizations, China has two goals in mind: to utilize these international bodies as platform to be involved in global rule-making and to gain more of a voice for China. In the near future, we can expect that the traditional Chinese selection approach for international civil servants will be reformed and more Chinese will pursue their careers in global governance and dedicate their intelligence and wisdom to that cause.
Wei Liu is an Associate Professor at the School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China, Beijing. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Arizona State University.