The Long and Winding Road to becoming a Civil Servant

5 min read.

Why is the Civil Service so Popular?

The allure of China’s civil service is unrivaled. In a country of 1.4 billion people and counting, being a civil servant in a labor market already bursting at the seams entails an “iron rice bowl” of job security, a regular paycheck, and a much lower chance of retrenchment than being in the “merciless” private sector. Civil service careers are especially attractive in China’s smaller cities, where there are generally fewer employment opportunities compared with first-tier, affluent cities nearer to the coast such as Beijing or Shanghai. 

At first glance, the attraction of the civil service seems to border on slight irrationalism. Based on data released by the South China Market of Human Resources, the average salary in the civil service in Guangdong province is about 40 percent that of an average employee in the same province. Yet, most civil servants are content with greater work-life balance, and the ability to spend more time with families or young children is something that money cannot measure for them. For females, the civil service’s welfare system means less reason for worry that marriage and childbearing would become impediments to their careers.

Some also value the idea that they are contributing indirectly to national policy-making. This combination of balance, stability and purpose that civil service jobs are supposed to provide is so highly valued that it is not uncommon to see even seemingly overqualified Masters and PhDs graduates applying. For most, money is not the main consideration when applying for the civil service, but rather the intangibles.

In Chinese society, it is an unsaid principle that for an individual to be “useful” and relevant, one has to hold either power, wealth, or both. One’s network is more often than not one’s net worth and social position. In short, having good and proper relations is pivotal to success. An individual who opts to join the civil service may be seeking to climb the power ladder by building relations with the “right people”.

The Civil Service Exam Journey

Before embarking on the path of a civil servant, all applicants must first face a feared hurdle. The National Public Service Examination, or guokao, is a mandatory rite of passage for anyone wishing to join the civil service. All candidates must be Chinese citizens aged between 18 and 35 years, with minimally a junior college degree. Candidates are required to sit an onerous five-hour written exam covering areas such as politics, mathematics, international affairs, language and logic. There are 135 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) that must be completed within two hours. 

Speed is of the essence, since a candidate only has less than a minute to answer each MCQ. Most questions are complex and are similar to what one might encounter in a psychometric IQ test. Thereafter, rounding up the five hours is a three-hour essay assessment, by which most candidates would likely be well and truly spent, wishing that everything was over. 

Xinhua reported that in late 2018, about 920,000 applied for 14,500 positions available, amounting to roughly 63 applicants per vacancy. This number still excludes a further 450,000 candidates who had been approved to sit the exam but were absent. This means that ceteris paribus, an individual has a meager 1.06 percent chance of getting selected for a professional role in the civil service. Not to mention, the stakes have gotten higher in recent years as the applicant-to-vacancy ratio has generally increased in recent years, as seen in the chart below. Barring a sustained dip between 2014 and 2016 which was likely due to the increased provision of vacancies as more central government civil servants entered retirement and more university graduates emerged, intense competition has always been a mainstay.

Graph depicting the change in applicants per vacancy
Source: Xinhua

In terms of exam preparation, although official Chinese statistics are not available, a feasible comparison may be made with the Indian Civil Services Examination (ICSE). Different students approach the exam differently, hence there is no “one size fits all” solution. However, most students might study between six to eight hours a day for a year, given that it is the recommended preparation time frame needed. This number rises to a whopping twelve to fifteen hours a fortnight before the exam date. Evidently, competition is immense and the pressure cooker environment only rewards the hardworking, the dedicated, and the passionate.

Further Requirements to Secure Roles

Even after an individual clears the exam, the fight is not yet over. Those applying for more specialised positions in the likes of finance and foreign affairs have to sit for a professional skills test on top of the written exam. As with most jobs, interviews with the applied departments of choice are also a prerequisite, along with an overall physical examination. In some roles, prior relevant work experience in internships are also either prerequisites or recommended. A majority of positions in Party and government agencies above the provincial level will additionally require at least two years of prior grassroots work experience, according to the State Administration of Civil Service.

With Stability, Comes Inertia

As aforementioned, it is well-known that civil servants earn little take-home pay relative to their private sector counterparts. In November 2015, civil servants enjoyed their first pay rise nationwide in over nine years. The lowest ranked national civil servants saw the two major components of their basic salary rise from a combined 630 yuan to a combined 1,320 yuan. For those in the highest rank – including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, their pay increased from 7,020 yuan to 11,385 yuan, based on statistics from the South China Morning Post. Although the basic take-home wage is still less than that in the private sector, certain individuals of esteemed rank are compensated in other ways such as enjoying numerous perks assigned by the government with the likes of chauffeur, car and housing. 

Many citizens apply for the civil service because they desire job security over financial freedom. In fact, while it often appears to be a blessing during market downturns, this much-praised job security may also be a curse. For some, staying in the civil service becomes no longer an option, but an inevitability. After being in the service for a while, a handful may feel they lack the skills and professional knowledge to remain competitive and survive in the private sector. The consequence of this is that some of the most competent workers might leave service to climb the corporate ladder, while the struggling few stay behind. 

Ultimately, this author is of the opinion that a true civil servant should be one that serves genuinely from the heart. As it stands, the guokao is likely one of the toughest decisions one will make in setting right the trajectory of one’s career. Passing the guokao and subsequently being selected into the civil service will probably no longer just be a stepping stone to greater things, but a lifetime commitment. To sit or not to sit, that is the question.