8 million Chinese youths sat for a test in the style of an 'imperial examination' — all for a job that pays about $7,000 a year
A record 7.7 million Chinese youths sat for an intense test to try to secure one of 200,000 government jobs.
With unemployment raging, people are fighting for the one-in-40 chance to work in the civil service.
Despite low pay, graduates are attracted to these "iron rice bowl" jobs, said China expert Alfred Wu.
More than 7.7 million Chinese youths sat for tests to secure 200,000 government jobs this year — the highest number ever recorded, per CNBC.
The applicants were all fighting for the one-in-40 chance to serve the Chinese government. These jobs are considered respectable vocations and have been dubbed "iron rice bowls" because of the stability and job security they bring, per the South China Morning Post.
This staggering eight million figure — slightly less than the population of New York — was a five-fold increase from the 1.4 million people who took the exam in 2021.
The application tests for these public service jobs are similar in intent and style to the ancient Chinese imperial examinations, a series of tests conducted by the state to find candidates best suited to serve the bureaucracy. These tests were conducted during China's Han Dynasty and were immensely difficult to pass, per the World History Encyclopedia.
The modern-day civil service tests are not far off the mark from their ancient iterations. The tests now assess candidates on multiple criteria like their language skills, data analysis, "common-sense judgment," and more, per CNBC.
In spite of the tough tests required to secure these jobs, civil service jobs are not high paying.
CNBC reported that civil servants earned an average of $6,979 a year in 2012. The state-run Chinese media outlet News 163, meanwhile, presents a far more dismal figure. It reported that 60% of civil servants earned less than $3,600 yearly in 2008 and 2009.
The vast number of applicants for the 2023 round is indicative of a growing demand for stable jobs as China's unemployment rate surges to new highs.
This comes as Xi Jinping was confirmed for an unprecedented third term as China's leader on March 10, per The Guardian.
The civil service provides much-needed security in uncertain times
More people are likely to flock to civil service jobs now because of China's flagging economy, said China expert Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
"In general, civil service jobs could bring with them benefits for the whole family, like connections to positions of power," Wu said. "Some youths' parents may have realized during COVID-19 that their children would be far better off with stable jobs in the public sector, than unstable — albeit higher paid jobs — in the private sector."
Wu said there is a significant pay disparity between the public and private sector, primarily due to Chinese leader Xi Jinping's nationalistic push to give state-owned businesses priority over the private sector.
"There is a lack of trust in the private sector now," Wu said. "Young people and fresh graduates will likely be more attracted to stable, 'iron rice bowl' jobs, because working for the government is a safer bet."
The rush to secure jobs in the public service comes amid skyrocketing unemployment
In August, China's national development and reform commission said its youth unemployment rate hit 19.9% in July. This meant that one in five jobseekers aged 16 to 24 were out of work.
This dismal number prompted Willy Lam, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., to call this China's "worst job crisis" in four decades.
"Mass unemployment is a big challenge for the Communist Party," Lam told CNN in September.
There are many reasons underpinning this wave of unemployment that's hitting China. Beijing's steadfast commitment to its zero-COVID policy cratered the job market. At the same time, Xi's government in 2021 enacted a sweeping regulatory crackdown on the tech sector — an industry where highly-paid positions were once coveted by Chinese job-seekers.
At the same time, some Chinese youths are rebelling against the rat race and pushing back against the idea that they must work "9-9-6" hours. The term refers to China's "hustle" culture, where people work 12 hours a day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Alibaba founder Jack Ma once advocated for this lifestyle, and in 2019 called the 72-hour workweek a "blessing."
In the summer of 2021, scores of Chinese millennials said they were joining the movement to "lie flat" after watching their friends work themselves to death.
The "lying flat" movement evolved in 2022 into a different, more sinister iteration — "letting it rot." This was a push amongst Chinese youths to not work, and pass one's time in open decay.
For those who want to be active participants in the workforce, civil service jobs continue to be a solid option. In January, some young civil servants told The New York Times that they've settled for civil service jobs because they don't know if they can find better positions in the private sector.
Amy Liu, who's worked as a clerk for the Beijing city government for six years, told The Times that she is mostly happy at work. But Liu was irritated when her bosses in the municipal government roped her in to manage crowds at the city's COVID-19 testing sites every week, for three years.
"My parents think it's good to be a civil servant," Liu told The Times. "They think I should never leave."
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