Young Chinese Look to Enter the Golden Rice Bowl

Oct. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Everything is bigger in China, including, it seems, the desire to be a career bureaucrat. On Monday, Chinese state media announced than 2 million applicants are expected to take the country’s annual civil service exam in November, a jump of 700,000 applicants over the relatively modest 1.33 million Chinese who took it in 2011.

As extraordinary as those numbers are, even more extraordinary are the ridiculous odds against passing, much less actually getting a job. In 2012, the central government and its associated agencies are offering a mere 20,839 positions -- meaning, in 2012, China’s 1 percent are those few who manage to become entry-level central-government paper pushers.

What might drive two million Chinese citizens to blow an autumn weekend taking “administrative aptitude tests” in faint hope of an entry-level government job?

A slowing Chinese economy is breeding uncertainty, especially in cities and among the college educated. Nonetheless, blame for China’s millions of aspiring civil servants can’t be pinned solely on sluggish growth. Over the course of the last decade -- a decade that tracks China’s historic economic boom -- applicants for the civil service exam have grown steadily and mostly irrevocably. For example, in 2001, a mere 30,000 applicants sat; in 2003, there were 87,000; and in 2007, the last year it was given before the fall 2008 global financial crisis, 600,000 sat.

To be sure, many of those millions of aspiring civil servants were attempting to flee the uncertainty of the free market. But it is also very much the case that many, if not most, had taken a careful look at how business is done in China and decided that a job in the civil service was the most efficient way to get a piece of the action. After all, China’s state-owned sector still accounts for more than half of China’s economic output, and arguably that role is growing. Whether it grows or not, though, such involvement is an open opportunity for money-hungry officials, and many seize it with vigor, skimming millions of dollars from government projects, accepting bribes from those they regulate or selling state assets that aren’t theirs -- all with little fear of repercussions.

Of course, some do get caught. According to state media, more than 660,000 Chinese officials have been punished by Chinese anti-corruption bodies over the last five years. But those are widely acknowledged to be the foolish and reckless ones, most of whom serve at the local rather than the central-government level.

For those who are careful, the “golden rice bowl,” as central-government civil service jobs are euphemistically known in China, is unlikely to be broken, and they’ll continue to enjoy the rich range of fully legal perks that would attract applicants even without the opportunity for graft.

That’s good news for central-government bureaucrats, but very bad news for those who prefer to see China’s best minds in its private sector, not wasting time prepping for jobs obtained through standardized tests.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)

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