In China, civil service jobs lose some appeal amid graft crackdown

For years, a job in China's civil service was more about perks than pay. Now even those are getting fewer.

Careless spending at expensive restaurants, top-shelf booze and quality cigarettes are off limits. Rules have been tightened on housing allotments and travel. Also verboten or frowned upon: nightclubs and executive MBA sessions at top universities.

For years, a job as a Chinese government official was often more about the perks and employment benefits than the pay. But since Xi Jinping came to power nearly two years ago and enacted a sweeping campaign against government waste and corruption, bureaucrats have been feeling the pinch, including tens of thousands who have been punished with dismissal, prison and public shame.

With no end in sight, the restrictions seem to be putting a dent in the appeal of government jobs. Although the number of applicants still far outpaces job openings, about 110,000 fewer candidates signed up this year for the November civil service examination and more than one-third of the 1.4 million candidates never showed up to take it.

Surveys cited by Caixin, a Chinese finance magazine, show that interest in government positions has diminished among people born in the 1990s compared with previous generations, with some analysts attributing it to the government anticorruption campaign.

"It's no longer as attractive as it used to to be a government official," said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who has written extensively on corruption in China. "Most likely the best qualified applicants will be looking elsewhere, so the quality of the civil service will suffer."

Li Luojia, 22, thought about a career in public service because, despite a low salary, the "job is stable" and "there are some hidden benefits."

But in the end, the Beijing Forestry University senior, who had majored in law, decided against taking the exam, which is a prerequisite for landing positions with employers such as China Railway Corp. and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Entry-level government officials in Beijing average $652 a month, less than a package deliveryman typically earns.

"If you rent your own house, if you count up food, subway fare — it's really difficult," she said. "I didn't want to do it."

Li is now applying to graduate school.

A deputy township head in the southwestern city of Luzhou told Beijing News last year that his salary was barely enough to pay for baby formula and diapers for his child. "After working for six years, I still relied on my parents to support my family," he said.

Officials thus rely on off-the-books contributions, with basic salaries accounting for only about 30% of their actual income, according to a survey this year by the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

Salaries for civil servants have long been a topic of debate in China. In two meetings this year, party delegate He Xiangjiu proposed that official salaries follow international norms, sparking outrage in China on the Web.

Some agree that pay increases would reduce the incentive for officials to accept bribes, but others point out that public employees already enjoy far more benefits than nongovernment workers do, such as health insurance, housing allotments, pensions and the chance to apply for a hard-to-obtain hukou, or residency permit, in major cities. (Xi is paid only about $1,640 a month, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said recently.)

For those who go into government service, opportunities for promotion are scant. The rate of promotion from the bottom rung to the next one up is less than 4.4%, according to a report last year from Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper. "If you haven't been promoted by [age] 35, your official career is basically stopped," the article concluded.

Still, even if more and more of the best and brightest are looking to make their careers in the private sector, the government isn't going begging for candidates.

Many people still consider a government post an "iron rice bowl," or a secure job with plenty of upsides. But public outcry over growing inequality and waste by civil service workers has resulted in an ever-widening list of restrictions on their lifestyle.

College seniors still look to government because good-paying jobs for university graduates are hard to come by in both the public and private sectors.

China has dramatically expanded educational opportunities in recent years, producing record numbers of college graduates. But many find themselves underemployed or unemployed. The official jobless rate among graduates six months after leaving university is about 15%. That means more than a million grads are not finding jobs this year.

"Civil service is a reliable job," said Wang Longxue, 22, like Li a senior at Beijing Forestry. Wang said her family encouraged her to apply for a government position.

"Although the anticorruption campaign has lowered the ratio, it shows that people still have an interest in such jobs," said Yue Changjun, a professor at the graduate school of education at Peking University.

Newcomers to China's civil service may just have to get used to the "new normal" of fewer perks. Wang Qishan, the Communist Party's chief discipline inspector, warned recently that authorities "will keep pressing the anti-graft campaign, treating sick trees and rooting up rotten ones."

Silbert is a special correspondent.

Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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