Civil ser­vice not what it’s made out to be

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The Chi­nese me­dia have been agog with re­ports on the pos­si­bil­ity of some civil ser­vants quit­ting their jobs and go­ing into busi­ness. They will do so, the re­ports say, be­cause the cen­tral gov­ern­ment’s eight-point code to re­duce bu­reau­cratism and main­tain close ties with the peo­ple has, to some ex­tent, trun­cated their wel­fare and perks.

Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, most civil ser­vants don’t live a life of lux­ury and leisure, and some of them have to even work over­time and dur­ing the week­ends. The av­er­age salary of ju­nior lo­cal-level of­fi­cials is about 2,000 yuan ($330) a month, a rel­a­tively low amount given the ris­ing prices. The truth is, most pub­lic ser­vants can barely man­age to make both ends meet.

This has cre­ated a pe­cu­liar sit­u­a­tion: Some young pub­lic ser­vants re­gret chan­nel­ing all their ef­forts into get­ting a gov­ern­ment job, while quite a num­ber of col­lege grad­u­ates, en­cour­aged by their par­ents, try their best to be­come civil ser­vants. The sit­u­a­tion re­sem­bles that of “a be­sieged city”, with peo­ple out­side des­per­ate to get in and those in­side dy­ing to get out.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, 9,763 new civil ser­vice po­si­tions were avail­able in 2011, 10,486 in 2012 and 12,927 in 2013. But the num­ber of can­di­dates who took the civil ser­vice ex­am­i­na­tion for th­ese va­can­cies was 900,000 in 2011, 960,000 in 2012 and a whop­ping 1.12 mil­lion in 2013. No won­der, the pub­lic refers to the civil ser­vice ex­am­i­na­tion as the “na­tional exam”.

This awk­ward sit­u­a­tion can be at­trib­uted to some so­cial fac­tors. Peo­ple, in gen­eral, re­gard the civil ser­vice as an idle oc­cu­pa­tion. The com­mon per­cep­tion is that a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial’s job is “just read­ing a news­pa­per with a cup of tea and cig­a­rettes”.

The wrong no­tion about the civil ser­vice is not re­stricted to just the na­ture of the work; it ex­tends to the num­ber of peo­ple work­ing as civil ser­vants. Ac­cord­ing to a widely cir­cu­lated state­ment, “there is one civil ser­vant for ev­ery 26 peo­ple” in China, a much higher ra­tio than in other coun­tries. But the fact is that of the 30 mil­lion pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, 15 mil­lion are teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cials, and more than 8 mil­lion are em­ployed in med­i­cal ser­vices, be­cause most schools and hos­pi­tals in China are pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions. Th­ese peo­ple are not truly civil ser­vants.

The ac­tual num­ber of civil ser­vants in China would, there­fore, be be­tween 7 and 8 mil­lion, with those staffing gov­ern­ment-af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions be­ing 4 to 5 mil­lion. That puts the to­tal num­ber of civil ser­vants be­tween 11 and 13 mil­lion, which means that only one out of ev­ery 118 peo­ple in China is a civil ser­vant, sim­i­lar to that in most de­vel­oped coun­tries. But even with th­ese fig­ures it is not easy to change pop­u­lar, but wrong, per­cep­tion.

A ma­jor rea­son for the pop­u­lar­ity of civil ser­vice is the cur­rent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion both at home and abroad. Since find­ing a suit­able job is be­com­ing even more dif­fi­cult, an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple are mak­ing a bee­line for gov­ern­ment jobs, be­cause it of­fers se­cu­rity and good so­cial ben­e­fits. How­ever, only a few suc­ceed in their en­deavor to be­come civil ser­vants, leav­ing the oth­ers to vent their anger on the civil ser­vice.

It is this anger that, to a cer­tain ex­tent, is mak­ing the fail­ures see cor­rup­tion in al­most ev­ery as­pect of the civil ser­vice, al­though re­al­ity is oth­er­wise. Civil ser­vants work ac­cord­ing to the law, fail­ing which they face pun­ish­ment. In some re­gions, how­ever, some of­fi­cials have abused their power to make money, com­pelling the Com­mu­nist Party of China to crack down on the “flies” at the bot­tom and the “tigers” higher up in the peck­ing or­der to elim­i­nate cor­rup­tion.

The pub­lic is dis­gusted with cor­rup­tion and de­mo­nizes civil ser­vants be­cause “hid­den rules” also al­low some cor­rupt of­fi­cials in China to re­ceive rel­a­tively le­nient pun­ish­ment com­pared with their coun­ter­parts in ad­vanced coun­tries. The fact, how­ever, is that only a small per­cent­age of the of­fi­cials who wield real power are cor­rupt. Or­di­nary pub­lic ser­vants don’t get a chance to ex­er­cise power, so how can they abuse it?

In the global con­text, ex­perts and en­trepreneurs usu­ally en­joy a bet­ter rep­u­ta­tion than civil ser­vants. No­bel Eco­nom­ics Prize win­ner Ed­mund Phelps may have said that so many young Chi­nese peo­ple be­com­ing civil ser­vants is a “se­vere waste” of tal­ent. But the ground re­al­ity in the coun­try makes it very dif­fi­cult for or­di­nary young peo­ple to climb up the so­cial lad­der de­spite their best ef­forts. So it is likely that civil ser­vice in China will be more like a “be­sieged city” for some time to come. The au­thor a pro­fes­sor at the Center for So­cial Pol­icy Stud­ies, af­fil­i­ated to the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences.


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