On a sunny day in April, An Changhui, a 22-year-old girl, was sitting in a classroom in the No. 18 Middle School of Yinchuan in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. An picked the second last desk near the window thinking her answer sheet won’t be taken right away when the exam finished.
She was taking the provincial level National Civil Service Exam to secure a position in a bureau under the Guyuan government: her first test was on politics. An was stunned to see there were 10 more questions than usual and worried she couldn’t finish.
An’s choice to pursue a career in government is one shared by many of her peers.
The enrollment process for the national level civl service exam ended on October 24. According to public records, the 10-day enrollment drew 1.99 million test takers. About 1.39 million passed the qualification examination.
According to the country’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, as many as 50 applicants were vying for each position – lower than last year’s 63. The average competition rate is 1:46.
The exam has long been known as the most competitive exam in the country. In 1994, only 44,000 people applied for the exam. That number has increased 300 times in 20 years – in 2014, the application rate reached 1.41 million. 2013 saw the peak when 1.52 million people applied for the exam.
Why Civil Servants?
A popular explanation to the phenomena is a surge in university graduation rates.
“In 1999, China decided to enlarge the scale of its higher education. The number of new students admitted to college increased by more than 40 percent,” according to a report by IZA, a private independent economic research institute.
With such a drastic increase in the number of graduates, the private sector failed to provide sufficient jobs and graduates were forced to turn to the government. Benefits that come with the job – such as steep housing discounts and a higher pension – are appealing to job seekers.
The country’s official cadre culture also plays a role. Although a civil servant will not necessarily enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, there is ample chance to be promoted within the system rise to power.
Since imperial times, Chinese society has respected authority and hierarchical organizations. After the beginning of the country’s market reforms, materialism became pervasive even among officials. Reoccurring stories about corrupt officials have helped to reinforce the idea that a civil servant, though earning a low salary on paper, gains the opportunity to make big money by abusing the power that comes with the job.
One of this reporter’s coworkers is also thinking about taking the exam. But for her, the exam is not a voluntary choice.
“My family has been asking me to become a civil servant since my first year in college. I didn’t apply for the provincial level exam like my friend, but now I am considering quitting and I cannot stand let them down again, so I will apply for it this time,” she said.
Traditional families emphasize stability – especially stable employment for women. Furthermore, social custom makes it difficult to challenge one’s parents in China.
“A part of me wanted to take the exam because the job will be stable and more relaxing. But another part of me doesn’t want to compromise because if I do this time, I might have to compromise more in the future. The world is so big, and I still want to go outside to have a look,” she said.
For the majority of young Chinese who were born in the 1980s and 1990s, the clash with their 1950-1960s parents is a lifelong event: from work to love and marriage and to families and babies, every step can be a battle.
The older generation endured the infamous Great Famine, Three-Year Natural Disaster and Cultural Revolution. Those years of turmoil made their yearning for stability especially strong. Most fear change and believe that employment outside a state-owned company or the government is equal to instability.
It can be tough for parents who spent their own 20s laboring on remote farms to understand children who live on the Internet and go on casual dates, British writer James Palmer wrote in his article “Balinghou” published on Aeon in 2013.
In Palmer’s article, Zhang Jun, a 26-year-old Ph.D student, described his clash with his parents as such: “It’s not just a generation gap. It’s a values gap, a wealth gap, an education gap, a relationships gap, an information gap.”
Yi Yanshu, who works for a public-sector organization in Beijing, said although she is not quite happy with her job, her parents are very proud of her and are proud to tell their friends and family about her job.
Power = Money?
An passed her examination and now works in the bureau she applied for. She said the work is not as boring as imagined and her mentality has changed. “I now look at it as an ordinary job. But no matter what your job is you need to try your best,” she said.
An said if given another choice she would still consider applying for the exam.
“My boss said if you want to be an official, then don’t think about making money; and if you want to make money, then give up the idea of being an official,” she said.
Of course, just how many of China’s millions of officials share this noble view will remain a mystery.