In China, a State Job Still Brings Benefits And Bragging Rights

Zhou Li, left, quit her state job at a university. Her husband, Wu Youming, was dismissed from the police force. Although they are happy now in the private sector, Wu said, friends and family consider them unemployed.
Zhou Li, left, quit her state job at a university. Her husband, Wu Youming, was dismissed from the police force. Although they are happy now in the private sector, Wu said, friends and family consider them unemployed. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)

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By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

BEIJING -- Tian Bing received his master's degree last month, which instantly made the law and computer science graduate a hot prospect in China's booming economy. Yet he has already rejected job offers from an aerospace company, a bank and the computer division of a prestigious foreign company.

Instead, Tian started a new job this week reviewing patent applications in the state intellectual property office. He doesn't know his salary yet but expects it will be less than half what the bank would have paid.

"Lots of people around me say that being a civil servant can have better benefits than private companies," said Tian, 26. "Each time my parents and I talk about jobs, they always ask me to find a government job, because being a civil servant means a safe job, good medical welfare and a good retirement pension."

China may be rushing headlong into capitalism, with unfettered private development and a runaway stock market, but many people here are still chasing after state jobs.

Government work has been the backbone of China's socialist economy for decades. But as more jobs shift to the private sector, young people are often torn between ambition and fear of living without a safety net. Their parents spent their entire working lives with state companies and were accustomed to benefits provided by traditional work units, known as danwei.

"Young graduates are fighting each other to get into a state-run work unit, because good jobs are now harder to come by, and schools churn out more and more graduates every year," said Jian Yi, 31, an independent filmmaker who recently left a cushy state job as a university lecturer in English and journalism.

"On the other hand, many ambitious young men think like me -- they are put off by the suffocating environment, the dirty politics within the danwei and the omnipresence of inefficiency, incompetence and corruption typical of a danwei," Jian said.

Since the Communist takeover in 1949, the government has provided cradle-to-grave jobs for much of the Chinese population, with benefits ranging from apartments and subsidized hospital stays to shampoo and toilet paper.

Leaders began dismantling the mostly bankrupt state-owned factory system beginning in the 1990s. The number of state workers dropped from 110 million in 1995 to 62 million two years ago. Today, private companies account for more than half of China's gross domestic product.

But many people still lack the courage to "jump into the sea" of private entrepreneurship, as the Chinese saying goes, preferring instead the dependability of lower-paying jobs in schools, police stations, post offices and the civil service.

Each year, as university enrollments rise, the civil service exam that Tian passed grows more competitive; about 540,000 people took the exam in 2005, a roughly 1,600 percent increase over the 32,000 people who took it in 2001, according to state media reports.

A Sheaf of Benefits

Boxes of oranges. Bottles of cooking oil. Jars of fragrant mosquito-repelling oil. And envelopes of cash. The list of benefits, from salted cod in the winter to green beans in the summer, is long and varied.


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