China / Cover Story

Jumping off the gravy train

By He Wei in Shanghai and Zhu Zhe in Beijing (China Daily) Updated: 2014-03-11 07:31

Jumping off the gravy train

The government's anti-corruption drive has resulted in a decline in the number of people willing to work for the civil service, report He Wei in Shanghai and Zhu Zhe in Beijing.

Dai Qiming's memories of his first day as a civil servant are as fresh as those of the day he left the service.

What they say

"The root of the 'four undesirable work styles' (formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance) mainly lies in the fact that power isn't controlled and supervised properly. They all result in an uncontrollable abuse of power of some officials and leaders. To combat that, the central government has launched a series of regulations that have met with a good response. They include regulations about practicing strict economy and combating waste, regulations on business receptions and the anti-corruption program for the next five years. The experience proves that system building is the guarantee of success in fighting the 'four styles'. "

Zhao Zhihai, NPC deputy and a professor at Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences

"The task of cleaning up the 'four undesirable work styles' must be established as a long-term system. It should accord with reality and be practical, realizable and specific. For example, officials' living standards, including their business travel and accommodation, should be clearly defined. That would provide better supervision. Officials also need to be more self-disciplined."

Zhao Fenglou, NPC deputy and mayor of Chengde city

"It's not just the government. The problem of the 'four undesirable styles' also exists in businesses. My company has several deputy managers, so it would be a great burden if they each had a driver and a car. To solve the problem, the company paid part of the cost of buying a car and provides a travel subsidy if trips are business oriented. By doing so, we greatly reduced costs. The system and the regulation of business are designed to realize the expected benefits. "

Lu Qingguo, NPC deputy and chairman of Chenguang Biological Technology Corp

"Last year, I attended 16 lectures for government officials on the prevention of occupational crime. They were very popular and around 600 people attended the biggest class. To face the problems related to the undesirable work styles and corruption, it's necessary to establish an education and training mechanism. We need to educate officials to ensure that in relation to corruption, 'don't want', 'can't', and 'dare not' become the bottom lines."

Jia Chunmei, NPC deputy and deputy chief procurator of People's Procuratorate of Handan city, Hebei province

Dai gazed across at a vast space in Xintiandi, Shanghai's most cosmopolitan district, where he spent seven years overseeing expat communities, and the rows of 40-story commercial towers that radiate in every direction.

The area is proud of its record as a heavy taxpayer. It houses the headquarters of about 50 multinational corporations and is home to flagship stores for top-end luxury brands, including Vera Wang and Harry Winston.

"I thought I'd become glamorous along with the area. I didn't. I must give up now," said Dai, whose "dream job" failed to withstand the seven-year itch.

The anti-corruption and austerity campaign initiated by the new Party leadership has swept through the 7.6 million workers in China's public sector and eradicated the "gifting rituals" that were once a common practice for people intent on wooing civil servants.

The growing vitality of the private sector and government's endorsement of market forces have also dissuaded an increasing number of people from becoming civil servants, a position that was considered a "golden rice-bowl" - a guarantee of lifelong employment - for years, if not decades.

So far this year, in some coastal regions, such as Zhejiang province, the number of applicants for civil servant posts has fallen by 25 percent compared with 2013.

Pro-austerity campaign

The government's anti-corruption, pro-austerity campaign has been a major factor in a decline in the growth of the country's luxury-goods market, which fell to just 2 percent in 2013, compared with a staggering 30 percent in 2011, according to a December study by the consultancy Bain & Co.

The number of officials receiving gifts has also declined markedly since the first half of 2013.

A random survey of 100 civil servants from eastern, western and central China, conducted by Beijing News in January, shows that 80 percent of respondents received no gifts last year, a stark contrast to the old days when officials regularly received prepaid shopping cards, wine or cigarettes.

"Some companies used to give high-end bags or watches to my supervisors. I received some shopping cards. Nowadays, no one dares to accept gifts because they don't want to risk losing their jobs. If that's the case, what's left for me?" Dai asked.

The well-documented end of the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by top government officials and the focus on rooting out corruption among both "flies and tigers", a synonym for low- and high-ranking officials, has resulted in fewer people wanting to work for the State, according to Robert Parkinson, founder and managing director of the international recruitment group RMG Selection.

Dai said the austerity drive was the straw that broke the camel's back, and he spent two years mulling "a change of life". Dai graduated with honors from the Public Administration Department of the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, but because he doesn't come from a well-to-do family, he was in dire need of the stability offered by a government post.

"I selected to work at the sub-district level because it was the 'most practical' choice. Put simply, it's about power and money," he said.

The desire to land a civil service post has long been representative of employment priorities among the country's brightest and best. Public posts are the perfect fit and encapsulate the aspirations of many Chinese: a decent income, high social status and a promising future.

Life was pretty good in 2008, Dai said. His annual post-tax net income was 180,000 yuan ($29,000), with around 20 percent coming via various subsidies, shopping coupons and discount cards converted into cash.

Work was laid-back and featured a typical troika of endless cups of tea, a selection of free newspapers and a cellphone. He was comfortable dealing with foreign businesspeople, who were friendly, courteous and, most important, fully conversant with the "hidden rules" of business.

"When they needed to fill out paperwork for work visas or business licenses, they never arrived empty-handed. During holidays such as Lunar New Year, my 'gray' income could reach five digits," Dai said.

Salary stagnation

But the perks once associated with being a civil servant have dwindled. As part of the new anti-corruption measures, lower-ranking civil servants will no longer be allocated official cars for personal use, and a wave of anti-graft campaigns have deepened scrutiny of government officials.

Dai also saw his salary stagnate. With no gray income, his earnings in 2013 fell by 30,000 yuan compared with five years ago.

For others, though, the reduction in earnings isn't the only thing prompting them to leave jobs that were once the envy of their peers.

A former diplomat who declined to be named said his salary was "highly disproportionate" to the extremely long hours he worked.

"My monthly salary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a little more than 3,000 yuan in 2007, but during the peak seasons, I could work as many as 60 hours a week," he said. His work situation and a growing disillusion with "diplomatic rhetoric" led him to resign in 2012, after spending four years as an attache in Kuala Lumpur.

He is now hoping to gain expertise in business management, which he regards as a "more useful tool" for planning his career. "I sensed it was insufficient to only master politics. I have an urge to learn more about the economy and the market," he said.

He joined a State-owned enterprise to "get a sense of what the real business world is like", and plans to move overseas to study his chosen subjects.

Liu Hong, a researcher at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology who is conducting a key national project into the development of civil servants and their work, said the crackdown on corruption might help filter out those who regard government posts as "lucrative and easy".

"The campaign will cool people's surreal expectations about the job and reinforce what it should be. Eventually, only those who demonstrate a strong public service ethos will remain in their posts," she said.

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