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Changing careers in mid-stream
( 2004-01-07 09:07) (China Daily By Raymond Zhou)

They call it "seafaring" but it has nothing to do with navigating the ocean blue or deep-sea fishing.

Most Westerners who read China-related news have heard the term "iron rice bowl," referring to cradle-to-grave employment. But few will be familiar with "xia hai" or, literally, "seagoing" or "seafaring."

The two phrases have some intrinsic connection: When you have an "iron rice bowl," you're on solid ground in terms of making a living. But if you give up the security of a lifetime job, you're moving from terra firma to the billowy, ever-shifting waves of the sea of uncertainty. "Seafaring," however, is more common among government personnel, while the "iron rice bowl" is more inclusive and can include blue-collar workers.

To a Western eye, all the fuss about seagoing officials may appear to be much ado about nothing. After all, in the West, movie stars can transform themselves into politicians in mid-career, while a secretary of state or big-city mayors easily mutate into consultants when their political terms end.

In China, an enviable political position is the ultimate status symbol. Although their remuneration may not be high, the title commands respect. And provided a political figure can avoid incurring disciplinary action or legal trouble, the official ladder only leads up, no matter how mediocre one's performance.

So the swarm of promising officials jumping into the "sea," as has been happening in recent years, is both puzzling and revealing. "Why would a 42-year-old mayor or bureau director give up his bright future" Others ask: "How come a mere bureaucrat can earn an annual salary of half a million yuan in the private sector where he presumably has no prior experience?"

Red-hat merchants

The "seafarers" are not talking. They keep low profiles to avoid controversy. Wu Minyi, vice-mayor of Wenzhou and the most prominent of the current batch of "seafarers," brushed aside the rumor that he had hit a glass ceiling. "I'm not the hero in the martial arts novel who quits an official job to ride into the sunset. I have my own career plan," he said cryptically. "I want to test myself in a business environment for endurance, courage, confidence and intelligence."

"Official seafaring is basically a game in the competition for talent between the government and the market," analyzes Hu Shoujun, professor of sociology at Shanghai-based Fudan University.

Hu says that a rational person would weigh the relative benefits of each sector and make the choice most likely to yield the best return, financially or otherwise.

"An official position, for all its perks, has limits in salary or personal freedom of growth. Overall, this phenomenon demonstrates that China's reform has enabled freedom of choice in job seeking and leveled the playing field to the extent that a government job no longer holds the absolute advantage."

Proponents agree this is a step in the right direction, as it departs from the traditional Chinese notion of sanctifying public service and opens up a bigger sky for talent. "This should be a wake-up call for all those college graduates who are desperate to get into bureaucracy," said Xie Huazhong, an official from East China's Jiangxi Province.

The Chinese have a special term for businessmen with official connections: red-hat merchants. And no hat is redder than the one on the head of a recently departed official who wielded substantial power. Is he going to trade this power for personal gain now that he is not under public scrutiny for his income or personal wealth?

The possibilities for corruption are many: The most brazen, perhaps, would be someone who has already pocketed large sums of ill-gotten gains and needs to turn the money into legally secure wealth "money laundering, in effect.

The argument goes: if you're a civil servant, it's easy for others to discern your corruption if you live way beyond your means; but once you put on the cloak of an executive or entrepreneur, the sky is the limit.

A second possible form of corruption is subtler. The "seafarer" has not blatantly taken bribes, but has instead gained a great deal of goodwill by doling out favours to special interest individuals or businesses. Now comes the time to "cash in," so to speak.

Then there is the perfectly legal return in terms of knowledge and experience. In an official capacity, one may have received all-expense-paid special training or education, learned the ropes about dealing with government bureaucracies and, therefore, knows the inside track to policy-makers and prime movers.

Counterbalancing act

What can be done to counteract the potential negative effects of a "seagoing" exodus? The government is studying the phenomenon and experts are not shy about offering their insights.

First of all, it is not only wrong, but also against regulations for some local governments to encourage civil servants to seek private employment while remaining on the government payroll, says Mao Shoulong, professor of administrative studies at Renmin University of China. "This is a gross violation of the principle of government-business separation. It will undermine fair competition in the market."

Professor Du Gangjian of the National School of Administration opposes bureaucrats "seafaring" in the same field that they dealt with in their official functions. "This would skew the distribution of social resources and pose a great danger to society."

He proposes an inspection system that would monitor those who vacate their seats of power.

According to Hu Shoujun, the Fudan professor, there was a regulation in 2001 that forbid those with county governor-level titles or higher to work in private businesses of related fields for three years after their departure. "Imperfect as it is, that can act as a buffer zone to restrain some of the bad behaviours," says Hu.

To eradicate corruption from the bureaucrat-to-businessman transition, there must be a consistent and transparent "exit mechanism," contend many experts. Our current bureaucratic system allows people to move up, but not move out because that is still considered an anomaly. However, things are changing and some local governments are experimenting with preventive measures.

When Wang Xiaoping resigned from his post as mayor of Yancheng, East China's Jiangsu Province, the city's auditing bureau of the supervising administration immediately sent out a team of inspectors to audit Wang Xiaoping's financial status during his term.

In Guangdong, a human resources officer with the Provincial Communist Party Committee confirmed that an inspection by the central government has ended and a new regulation is in the offing.

"We may worry about those who swap political power for business power, but we need to look at the whole picture, which is brighter than ever," says Zhao Yonglin, a media commentator who prefers to see the glass as half full.

"When Chinese officials are willing to leave the lofty heights of officialdom for results-orientated private jobs, that is progress. We used to be baffled by it, but most can understand the logic now. The real problem is, there are not a lot of people who can switch to the business world. It takes nerve and aptitude," Zhao says.

3 waves of ¡®seafaring¡¯

Since the economic reform and opening-up policy of the late 1970s and early 1980s, changing jobs has gradually become a way of life. Even though clear-cut dates are hard to pinpoint, sociologists have identified three major movements of civil servants leaving their official posts for the business realm.

** The first wave took place in the mid-1980s, when a few officials dipped their toes into the "sea water" by assuming posts in enterprises owned and managed by the government agencies they had administered. For example, a Ministry of Petroleum official might change suits to become a general manager of a State-owned oil company. There was no risk involved because it was like being reassigned from headquarters to a subsidiary.

** During the second wave in the early 1990s, the "seafarers" would take unpaid leave to try their luck on their own, rather than by assignment, in the business world. If they failed, they still had the luxury of returning to the iron rice bowl of their previous jobs. This was known as "baptism by the market economy."

** The third wave, which began in 2000, featured a noticeable distinction. The typical "resigner" is no longer someone whose official career is at a dead end or who seeks safe passage to the risky but potentially lucrative private sector. Instead, his career is usually in full bloom and he must sever all moorings to officialdom in order to become a full-fledged businessman. He, or she, for that matter, is also typically younger, better educated and exhibits greater political potential.

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