Working for the Chinese government is now as miserable as working in a factory

Serving the People’s Republic of China isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Serving the People’s Republic of China isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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The life of Chinese civil servant, once a steady ticket to middle class comfort, has gotten pretty bleak: you have little room for career advancement; your salary isn’t much higher than that of a factory worker, and the majority of the Chinese public, believing that all government bureaucrats are corrupt, hates you.

That’s the account of a young government bureaucrat in Beijing in an interview with the China Youth Daily, which illustrates how undesirable these once coveted positions working for the Chinese government have become—a trend that could eventually hurt China’s communist party, which depends on the loyalty of its thousands of cadres and bureaucrats.

Li Ming, who is working for a government media department after graduating from university last year, makes 3,300 yuan ($530) a month, about the same as a worker in a manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, he notes. More than half of that goes toward rent for the 70-square-meter apartment he shares with his colleagues, as well as groceries, and a mobile phone bill. ”There is no money left at the end of the month. I’m lucky if I don’t have to borrow,” Li told the newspaper. ”Of the hundreds of thousands of civil servants in China, only a few have any real power; most are just low-level servants like us,” he said.

Li says that many of his superiors will likely retire in the position they currently hold, which is just one notch above his. Room for income growth and extra so-called “grey income,” bribes and kickbacks is an option only for higher-level officials, and even that is quickly disappearing due to the government crackdown. Meanwhile, the public is staunchly opposed to raising salaries for government officials.

China’s state-run media obviously have an incentive to show that their corruption crackdown is working, so Li’s tale should be taken when a few grains of salt. But there are undeniable signs that the fortunes of the country’s millions of civil servants are changing. The party has seen a string of suicides by officials who are under investigation, and many others have simply disappeared into the brutal extra-judicial disciplinary system that exists specifically for party officials.

If government positions experience a steady decline in desirability, it may mean a dearth of manpower and talent for the Chinese government and communist party. Already, government officials heading up state-owned companies have been jumping ship (paywall) to the private sector. More officials are also choosing demotions over forcing their families who have moved abroad to come back to China, a requirement the party has tried to enforce over the past few months. And there are less young professionals like Li going after civil servant jobs: This year, graduates taking the civil service exam dropped by 10%.