China’s young elite is climbing for government jobs. Some come to regret it.

In Beijing and cities across China, as many as 2.6 million job applicants, including graduates from the country’s top universities, will show up at testing centers in early January to face extremely long odds and compete. for 37,100 entry-level government jobs.

The national exam is an annual rite for young Chinese, some of whom spend thousands of dollars on preparatory classes and many hours of cramming. It comes at a difficult time. It was to be given at the beginning of December, then was canceled at the last minute. The government cited Covid-19 lockdowns, but the review was postponed days after protests in more than a dozen cities against China’s tough pandemic restrictions.

Jobs in China’s vast civil service have long been seen as prestigious career launch pads. They include entry-level roles typical of any economy, like clerks in municipal government, and some that are unique to China, like helping with the country’s vast censorship bureaucracy.

But these days, jobs are also coveted out of necessity, as it is especially difficult for new graduates to find jobs in private companies.

Almost one in five people aged 16 to 24 in China are unemployed. Alibaba, Tencent and other tech companies have laid off workers. Economic growth has been dented by a severe real estate crisis and small businesses have suffered from Covid restrictions, which have brought large parts of the country to a standstill for weeks or months at a stretch. The “zero Covid” policy has been abandoned, but the economy is not expected to recover quickly.

“It’s just that they don’t have as many opportunities in the private sector,” said Alfred Wu, a professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Competition for civil service positions is so fierce that people often refer to it with a Chinese saying: “thousands of soldiers crossing a single-plank bridge.”

The examination is rigorous. Candidates must answer approximately 130 multiple-choice questions covering topics such as math, data analysis, science, and economics. They are asked to write five essays of 200 to 1,000 words each on social issues and government policies. Scoring greatly increases the chances of getting a job, although getting hired means enduring a battery of interviews, background checks and other examinations.

Then there is the reality of public service work. Some say their days are governed by rigid hierarchies and involve monotonous tasks. Others, while saying they enjoy their jobs, complain that their responsibilities often extend beyond normal working hours. The role they had to play in enforcing China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid over the past three years was a sore point.

Amy Liu, who has served as a clerk in Beijing’s municipal government for the past six years, said she especially enjoys her job, has learned a lot from it and finds her days satisfying.

But in recent years she has been drawn into the “zero Covid” campaign. Like everyone in her department, she had to volunteer at virus testing sites once a week when there were high numbers of cases. She was tasked with standing guard and keeping the crowds in line.

“This kind of thing irritates me so much,” Ms. Liu said.

This was in addition to other required tasks unrelated to his job, such as study sessions on the history of the Communist Party, ideology classes organized by the propaganda department, and tutorials on law and discipline of the anti-corruption department. These topics have taken on greater prominence across China since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

Working in the civil service has a rich history in modern China. Government jobs were once prized – an earlier generation called them “iron rice bowls” because of their stability. They offered security and regular working hours. But after China’s economy began to open up, many young people chose instead to pursue the wealth and opportunities available in the private sector.

This trend has reversed under Mr. Xi. The state’s heavier hand on parts of the economy like technology has made these private sector jobs less attractive and harder to find, while imposing new burdens on public sector workers.

“The culture of the whole Chinese local government has changed from encouraging innovative economy and developing tourism to achieving the goal of political security and pleasing supervisors,” said Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford which focuses on Chinese society. .

These jobs have been particularly difficult during the pandemic. China’s rigid policies created a slew of rules for officials to follow, which required frontline workers to use ‘punching bags’ and ‘pressure relief valves’, said Liberation Daily, a Communist Party newspaper. Chinese, in an April article during a lockdown in Shanghai that lasted two months.

Xi said China needed to ease the burden on lower-level officials by reducing “formality for formality and bureaucracy”, noting how government departments in some cities are forcing staff to fill out paperwork that does not resolve issues. real problems. But it’s unclear whether the easing of “zero Covid” will change the nature of entry-level jobs, at least in ways that will make the job more attractive.

It’s a difficult time for a young person to start a career in China. “They know that the opportunities generated by China’s rapid growth no longer belong to this generation,” said Mr. Wu, the Chinese expert in Singapore. This frustration among many young people, he said, was expressed in the wave of protests that rocked China in November.

“Of course the protests must have something to do with Covid, but they also showed their desperate side,” he added.

Despite their dissatisfaction with their jobs, some young civil servants said they felt trapped because there was no guarantee that they would do better in the private sector. Additionally, they said they often feel pressured by parents who value stable employment and relish the status of a child working for the government.

“My parents think it’s good to be a civil servant,” Ms. Liu said. “They think I should never leave.”

Katherine Shi has a job that, at first glance, seems attractive to many young graduates: she watches television for a living. Ms. Shi is a government censor who researches vulgarity, politically sensitive content and other prohibited topics on TV and in movies.

The work became hard to bear, she said. Some days he is asked to censor 100 hours of video and make sure nothing gets through. Even watching videos at double speed, Ms. Shi said it was impossible to cope with the workload.

She often feels conflicted at work, she said, because there are a lot of things she doesn’t find objectionable but fall under censorship guidelines. He is ordered to censor an ever-growing list of content, such as videos about LGBTQ people, tattoos or so-called “flat” values, a counterculture approach that has gained popularity in China for embracing a lack of ambition and wanting an easy , simple life. In a detective film, the censors must ensure that the criminals are always punished.

“The culture should be very free, and you should allow the expression of so-called negative energy and the dark side of society because they really exist,” Ms. Shi said. She said she felt some people in government had turned a blind eye to the reality of the world.

“I was very upset about it,” she said, adding that she was considering quitting to study abroad.


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