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April 15, 2014 3:25 pm
I knew very little about China’s civil service until I adopted a child whose Chinese name means “does well in the imperial examinations”, the highly competitive tests which chose those destined for top government positions in China for 1,300 years.
I kept that moniker, given to her by her orphanage carers, as her middle name – though I wasn’t much inclined to call her “got 2,400 on the SAT” as her first name. But I appreciated the nannies’ decision to label her from birth as a Chinese success story. For until recently most parents would have been delighted to see their child secure a coveted place in the mainland civil service (complete with iron rice bowl). For years government jobs have always taken the top spot in surveys of the preferences of Chinese job seekers. The orphanage nannies were wishing her the brightest of futures, in a country with an ancient tradition of public service.
But when applicants sat down last weekend to take the annual exam to enter the civil service, they found themselves facing dramatically altered attitudes to government employment: the number of test-takers fell by as much as a third in some provinces, and others recorded a rate of no-shows that was the highest in history, according to the Chinese press. They appear to have been put off by cuts in benefits such as low-cost healthcare and housing subsidies, along with the high-profile anti-corruption crackdown that has choked off the flow of grey income into that old rice bowl.
A few million people still sat the exam anyway; like last year, China is expecting more than 7m university graduates to enter the workforce this year, and many will struggle to find secure employment. But with civil service jobs losing their lustre, and applicants for private-sector jobs also struggling to find a salary high enough to pay the rent, China’s jobs crisis is generating some creative forms of alternative employment.
The part-time job of online weeding and watering of virtual gardens has gone out of fashion, together with the virtual greenery itself, but plenty of job seekers on Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay, are still cheerfully offering themselves to do other virtual tasks by the hour. They can download movies (China’s internet censorship makes that a hit), draft apologies to jilted girlfriends and build up points or skill levels in the games we play on our mobile phones.
Any of those jobs are likely to pay even less than the civil service, sans Rolex and bribery supplements. But some new job categories are more lucrative – such as professional online game player. At top levels they can score prizes in the millions of dollars at international competitions. It is enough to wean mum and dad off their addiction to the civil service entirely.
Zhu Songge, the twenty-something manager of the Invictus Gaming Club in Shanghai, is a graduate of the prestigious Fudan University’s law school and former holder of a coveted public servant job. Now he manages the club, bankrolled by the son of one of China’s richest men, the billionaire property developer Wang Jianlin of Dalian Wanda.
When I visited Invictus’s place of business – a three-bedroom flat in a residential high-rise building – most of the 14 young men who lived and worked there had just got up from their noontime snooze. The tangle of sports bags, dirty socks and lone sneakers strewn across the floor spoke the language of teenage boys everywhere: mess.
But the living room was wall-to-wall computer terminals, where the flat’s occupants played a required 10-12 hours of video games a day, training for weekly competitions. The club covers all meals and rent, allowing players to clear between Rmb4,000 ($648) and Rmb8,000 a month. And if they win, bonuses can be huge – two years ago, the team split a $1m prize from a competition in the US. Many a junior civil servant should be so lucky.
And the news just keeps getting worse for public servants. Last week civil servants in southern China’s Guangdong province were told they must seek approval 10 days in advance before holding weddings or funerals – any event at which guests might offer them money to curry influence. They must disclose how much they spend on such events and prohibit fellow public servants from attending, just to be sure.
It’s enough to turn us all into online gamers. I may have to call my first grandchild “does well at League of Legends”. China’s civil service may be one of the world’s oldest – but it isn’t, as they say, what it used to be.
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