It’s getting easier and easier to become a Chinese bureaucrat

Day in the life.
Day in the life.
Image: Reuters/Stringer China
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This week, about 900,000 Chinese citizens lined up outside testing centers across the country to take the civil service examination, a highly competitive written test that could lead to a cushy desk job, complete with benefits and and pension plan.

The Chinese government has openly planned to reform its bloated bureaucracy for decades. But statistics show not only are there more and more civil servant jobs up for grabs in China, it’s becoming easier to nab one.

According to data from Beijing News and CUNET (links in Chinese), in 2011 there were 53 candidates competing for a single position. But now only 30 candidates are facing off for a single seat.

The number of test takers that show up for the exams has stagnated in recent years. After experiencing a boom in the 00’s, applicant numbers now hover around 900,000.

But the number of open positions in government keeps growing. This year, a record 27,817 seats were available candidates who passed the test.

This is precisely what the Chinese government is trying to avoid.

Since the eighties, the Chinese central government has called for lower-level bureaus to reduce their headcount. But these cries for reform have seldom yielded the desired result. Because officials seldom get fired, older or incompetent ones typically are moved laterally but kept on the government’s payroll. As new officials are hired to take their place, the system gets larger, more expensive, and less efficient.

It is likely that applicants have stagnated, despite a dearth of good jobs for university graduates, because becoming a Chinese official has become a lot less cushy in recent years.

After he took office in 2012, Chinese premier Li Keqiang made the country’s fat bureaucracy one of his favorite targets for public bashing. In May, after a report reached him alleging extreme laziness among several local bureaucracies, Li equated their sloth to corruption. “Holding down a job without doing a stroke of work and accomplishing nothing is a typical example of official corruption, and these officials should be held responsible!” he said during a government meeting.

Xi Jinping’s campaign against corruption, meanwhile, has made becoming an official riskier, as once-customary bribe taking is being punished severely. And standard salaries for bureaucrats are not much better than a factory worker’s wages.

If China’s best talent is shunning officialdom for other jobs, they’re being replaced by less competent people. That means the quality of civil servants in China’s government offices can only go down.