Feng Xin: On the 25th of November, more than one and a half million young people in China will be taking the 2013 National Civil Servants Examination to compete for some 20,000 positions in various government sectors. These numbers mean for every job there will be 66 candidates competing on average. There are over 100 positions where the competition gets really fierce – in fact the admission ratio in this case is as high as 1,000 to 1. But at the same time, some 130 positions in remote areas have attracted zero applicants. That's according to the State Administration of Civil Service.
But what has surprised many people this year is one ordinary position in Chongqing Municipality. It alone has attracted more than 9,400 candidates and become the most sought-after position in the history of China's Civil Servants Examination. Media reporters discovered that it's just a clerk position under the National Bureau of Statistics'Chongqing division and is just paid 2,000 yuan a month, but it has the fewest admission requirements. The increase in the exam’s popularity over the last decade is quite obvious. Also according to the State Administration of Civil Service, China didn’t start selecting candidates through the National Civil Servants Examination until 1993.
In 2002, about 63,000 candidates took part in the Exam. There were 12 times more candidates by 2009, and in 2010 for the first time more than 1 million people took the Exam. The final number of examinees this year is yet to be known, but over 1.5 million people have already registered for the exams as of Oct 24. These numbers all come down to one question: Why do more and more young people in China want to work for the government? In this episode of Digest China, we will meet one university student preparing for this year's exams, a young civil servant who topped the selection last year and became an employee at the Ministry of Commerce, and an entrepreneur who saw business opportunities in the exam industry.
Mu Lin is in his senior year at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, majoring in English. He didn't make up his mind to apply for a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the very last few days before the deadline, but he intended to take the National Civil Servants Examination since his third year at university.
Mu Lin (Student at the University of International Business and Economics): We were thinking what we would do in the future. Work for a foreign-owned company, a State-owned company, the government or study abroad? I think compared to other options, taking part in the exam and becoming a civil servant would be ideal both in terms of pay and pace of life. Some American companies may not pay any less than what civil servants are paid, but you might have to get to work by 9 am and work extra hours every day. Life is very tense.
Feng Xin: Have you heard that there are going to be many demanding positions this year, which require you to work in remote areas or long hours? It seems that being a civil servant is no longer an easy job.
Mu Lin: I've heard a little. In fact, candidates used to have to have two years of working experience before they could apply, so fresh college graduates were not eligible for many positions. But now, since there are more demanding positions in remote or poor areas, the two-year bar no longer exists. That’s actually a good thing for us.
Feng Xin: Then, what was your childhood dream?
Mu Lin: I always wanted to be an artist, like being a stand-up comedian, actor, or going out to do interviews.
Feng Xin: Then what transformed you from wanting to be an artist to (wanting to be a) civil servant?
Mu Lin: I think being an artist, a successful artist, to a large extent depends on luck. There are a lot of uncertainties. For example, if you want to live on acting in plays and live well, it's very hard to predict. Even if you don't mind living that way, you still have your parents and girlfriend. It's very uncertain. However, if I am a civil servant, at least the hours after work would belong to me. I can still fulfill some of my little artistic dreams.
Feng Xin: As we know, there has been a growing number of young people taking part in the National Civil Servants Examination each year. What do you think of such a phenomenon?
Mu Lin: I think nowadays young people face a lot of pressure. It looks like there are many options in front of us and many places to go. But when the options really fall upon us – let's say, there are 100 options, but all of them require you to work until 8 or 9 pm, four days a week, and the salaries are more or less the same – the 100 options are in fact equal to one. That is, the tiring and underpaid option.
Feng Xin: There has been a voice in society that there are more and more young people keen on getting in the government system, but really, they should be chasing their dreams. Trying to become a civil servant seems to be a waste of time. What do you think of such a voice?
Mu Lin: I don't think this is young people's problem. Young people are just guided to walk toward that direction. They choose whichever path that's bright. In China, perhaps the government system is the bright path, so young people automatically choose it. I don’t think young people really follow rules or the system. They follow the light. Since now the light is defined to be (the government system), people will, of course, come in great numbers.
While the exams are getting popular among young people, how do they select candidates? China's National Civil Servants Examination consists of two standard written tests and individualized interviews. In the Test of Administrative Competency, candidates have to answer 135 multiple choice questions in two hours. The questions cover areas such as current affairs and general knowledge, reading, math and logic. In the Test of Argumentation, candidates have to read several large passages concerning current affairs, summarize them, draft official documents and write argumentative essays in two and a half hours. The two written exams serve as the first round of selection for government sectors to narrow down candidates for interviews. Passing the exams would be very challenging to many.
Chen Chaoyi became an employee at the Ministry of Commerce in 2011. The job he applied for was one of the most competitive positions that year. But topping the selection wasn't just his luck. He actually failed his first attempt in 2010. I was interested in how he succeeded the second time around.
Feng Xin: Well, let's look at your experiences. After you took the two written exams, what did the following five rounds of selections look like?
Chen Chaoyi(Employee at Ministry of Commerce): After you've taken the national exam, you go to the ministerial one (and) then you go to the departmental one. I don't think everyone has to (go through) five rounds of interview. That's only my case, but the sequence is clear. We all try to keep smiling, because you know it's a very important, extremely important, quality that you keep in here. You must be amicable. You must be peaceful all the time. Otherwise, I think it would be deadly for you.
Feng Xin: At that time, you had already worked for China Central Television for one year as a new editor, which would have been considered a dream job by many already. So what made you decide to take the civil servants exam?
Chen Chaoyi: And for me, I do not want to appear cynical in front of the camera, but let me just tell you in this way: To be a news editor or to be a news reporter, as I was, was to tell the stories about what others have done. However, I would prefer to do the things, to be involved in the things, and let others tell the stories about.
Feng Xin: So you want to be talked about.
Chen Chaoyi: Yes. I don't want to talk about. I want to be talked about.
Feng Xin: So what made you think that being a civil servant would enable you to become the subject of the story?
Chen Chaoyi: Well, we are actually running the whole country, as you see. So, aren't we the center of others'attention?
Feng Xin: So what was your childhood dream?
Chen Chaoyi: I don't know. I (hadn't) thought that far during my childhood. I was just thinking about how to play, how to dodge the homework. But what my father kept telling me (was) that you can be a diplomat. A diplomat is an ideal job for me and for him.
Feng Xin: What is your typical day like? Does it involve a lot of extra hours?
Chen Chaoyi: I think so, working late with no extra pay.
Feng Xin: Really?
Chen Chaoyi: Yes.
Feng Xin: But people say being a civil servant…
Chen Chaoyi: No, no, no. It's ridiculous. Actually they don't know what our lives (are like). Let me put it this way: I don't know what other ministries are like, but, for us, we are a ministry that (is involved) in foreign affairs. We have to deal with foreigners. So, when things are occurring in other countries, we have to react, and that (results in) our overtime.
Feng Xin: And what's the most (satisfying) part about your job?
Chen Chaoyi: Well, I think if you see the documents, the passages you have written (are) being discussed at an international conference, at the international level, (and) I think I would be very proud of (that).
Feng Xin: So, as we can see, China's civil servants exams are getting more and more popular among young people. What do you think of such a phenomenon?
Chen Chaoyi: I think there are two reasons. The first one is that if you join this group and you are working for the country, and this is a kind of honor and glory – not for oneself but for the whole family. And this (role has been) cherished throughout the history of our nation. The second one is, I think for a lot of my compatriots, for a lot of Chinese, to live and work in Beijing, the capital, with a high social status, as I have (said), and with a relatively decent salary is an opportunity to change one’s own fate. (For example, if) my family works in the field, (and) my family were farmers (for generations), I can change this. I can change this by working hard (and) by studying hard.
But what do government jobs really promise young people in China nowadays? In March, My China Occupational Skills, or MyCOS, an independent research institute, conducted a survey of more than 250,000 college graduates from more than 2,000 Chinese universities and colleges. According to MyCOS, college graduates of the class of 2011 who work in government sectors do not make as much money as those working in foreign companies, State-owned and private companies. The situation is quite similar for graduates from the class 2008 who have already worked for three years.Compared to other workers, government employees received the smallest salary rise over the period.
In spite of modest salaries, graduates from 2011 report having the highest degree of satisfaction in working in government sectors six months after their graduation – ahead of State-owned enterprises, foreign companies, non-government organizations and private enterprises. The situation is also similar for the class of 2008, even three years after their graduation. The large number of examinees each year is not the sole testimony of the exams'increasing popularity. An industry chain that comes with it is booming, as well. Not only are there hundreds of text books, exercise sheets and audio-visual publications, but there are also online courses, training camps and private tutors.
Yang Xinyuan (First Floor Sales Manager at Beijing Books Building): Civil servant books have always been an important category of ours. The sales have been quite stable in recent years, making about 1 million yuan in sales each year. As the number of available positions grows – there are 20,000 this year, 3,000 more than last year – we believe our sales this year will even be better than before.
Yang said each individual customer spends at least 100 yuan, or 16 dollars, on exam-related books. While at the bookstore, I also ran into a market researcher doing informal surveys for his publishing company. His job was to observe readers'buying habits and chat with them to learn what they wanted.
Liu Qiang (Distribution manager): The exams have been demanding a higher level of capabilities from candidates. So, while the examinees were focusing on practicing exam techniques, they are now paying more attention to problem-solving skills.
But in terms of knowing what civil servant candidates need and want, Li Yongxin is perhaps one of the first few people in China to find business opportunities. As early as 2001, Li started offering training services to exam candidates. And now his company publishes dozens of books each year and runs 300 training centers with more than 5,000 lecturers around the country. Li estimates that the industry itself is worth about 5 billion yuan, or 790 million dollars annually, and his company shares up to 40 percent of the cake. Unlike many of his peers at that time, Li decided to start his own business even before graduating from Peking University more than a decade ago.
Feng Xin: Mr Li, I'd like to begin by asking what made you start offering training services to civil servant candidates as early as 2001.
Li Yongxin(CEO of OFFCN Education Group): Well, we were training kids for the International Mathematical Olympiads back then. It was very easy, but we found it quite boring. The case was totally different when we were training college students for civil servants exams. We could get feedback. We could communicate our ideas and beliefs to them. For example, I could talk to them about my understanding of life, the society and way of dealing with different people. I could communicate with them in my lectures.
Feng Xin: I heard that all the lecturers in your company are required to take the exams themselves. Is that true?
Li Yongxin: Yes, yes.
Feng Xin: You asked them to do so?
Li Yongxin: Yes, especially when a lecturer first starts teaching. Back in 1999, 2000 and 2001, when we were doing research and development, we all took the exams ourselves, feeling what it is like to answer 135 questions in such a short time by spending only 50 seconds on each question.
Feng Xin: Well, before I came to interview you, I tried the Test of Administrative Competency myself. I found many questions were to do with things like logical deduction of shapes, solid geometry, arithmetic progression and so on. I wonder how much they are related to the actual work civil servants do.
Li Yongxin: These questions in fact test your basic potential. Let's say math. It looks like it doesn't have anything do with wiring, but it in fact reflects one's understanding of numbers, logic and reasoning. These abilities will be required in a civil servant's daily work. That's the Test of Administrative Competency. The Test of Argumentation simulates civil servants'job even more. You have to draft and summarize documents, report to your supervisors and write articles. It's a complete simulation of government work. Over a decade, I believe the exam composition has already become very scientific and effective. They can effectively select the talents needed by national, provincial and municipal governments.
Feng Xin: What traits do you think a qualified civil servant needs to have?
Li Yongxin: I think moral integrity is the number one quality. A civil servant needs to be fair and honest. Second, he or she needs to be equipped with the basic skills required for government work, such as writing, interpersonal communication, situational problem-solving and so on. Third, I think, under the complex international environment, one needs to have a wide scope which allows him or her to situate China's development in a global and historical context. That's why you need to have a wide scope. Fourth, I think he or she needs to have abilities to handle complex issues. Public administration has been demanding more from civil servants. Whether one can handle problems well is crucial, as far as I see.
Feng Xin: I learned that you actually started your own business even before you graduated from university. Well, 20 years ago many young people left the government system and entered foreign-owned and private companies or started their own businesses. Twenty years later, the trend seems to have reversed. The direction has reversed. As a college entrepreneur, how do you see the fact that more and more young people nowadays choose a path that's opposite to yours?
Li Yongxin: I think this would have a lot to do with my genes. I like to create. I like to differentiate. My classmates chose to pursue post-graduate studies in China or the US, or work in the government. But I didn't want to do the same, so I started my own company. This is, in fact, a result of my keenness on differentiation. You'd find during that era working at a foreign-owned company was perhaps a good option. But in recent years, you'd find people pay more attention to becoming civil servants. The number of applications has increased from 80,000 in 2002 to 1.5 million today. This is a reflection of people's attention. Personally, I don't think this is a good phenomenon. Paying so much attention to the government to some extent reflects young people's choice of a short-cut. They are, in fact, trying to acquire the surplus of the government’s expansion.
That's a deep reason for the popularity of becoming civil servants. I don't appreciate or want to see more university students accumulate wealth, status or power in life through such a path. I think they should do more innovation. Work for enterprises. Do things that really create value for society. Creating values through innovation – that's what young people are supposed to do. When we are still young, passionate and idealistic, we should do as much as we can. Otherwise, 20 or 30 years later when we want to use our creativity, we find we are old and have no passion left.
On Nov 25, more than 1.5 million young people in China will be taking the 2013 National Civil Servants Examination to compete for some 20,000 positions in various government sectors. This means for every job there will be 66 candidates competing on average. The number of exam candidates grew 15 times over the last decade, according to the State Administration of Civil Service. These numbers all come down to one question: Why do more and more young people in China want to work for the government? We will meet one university student preparing for this year’s exams, a young civil servant who topped the selection last year and an entrepreneur who saw business opportunities in the exam industry.