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China's civil service losing allure as bureaucrats' income, power ebb

Shanghai City Hall

SHANGHAI -- President Xi Jinping's crusade against corruption has shaken bureaucrats to the core by stripping some of the privileges enjoyed by these elites. And they could have even less to look forward to in the future as severe pension cutbacks are now on the table.

     Public servant is still synonymous with a steady job and stable income for life in the minds of many Chinese. Naturally, government jobs are still highly prized, but competition for them is less fierce than it once was due to the anti-corruption campaign's apparent impact on public servants' lives.

     "The number of applicants has decreased for the second straight year," a Shanghai city government official said.

     On Dec. 21, an exam for selecting new city employees for 2015 was held at 52 locations. Nearly 40,000 applicants competed for 4,275 positions. Odds slightly higher than 9-1 make it a competitive screening process, but the number of job seekers was down significantly from the previous year, when roughly 48,000 vied for 4,778 positions.

     "The attraction of civil service is diminishing," the official said.

     The waning popularity of government jobs is not a local trend limited to the Shanghai area. The nationwide exam for central government jobs held Nov. 30 saw roughly 1.4 million applicants pursue about 22,200 posts, down 110,000 from a year earlier. This was the biggest drop since 2012, when volunteer work was added as a new requirement. At 64-1, the odds of getting a job were the lowest in five years.

Bleak future

The biggest reason for the declining popularity of public service is most likely the dwindling opportunities to earn money. It is a common year-end practice in China for businesses to give their clients gift cards for department stores and shopping malls. Because bureaucrats can make or break a company through their power to grant or deny permits, business owners were well advised to hand out such gifts to government officials.

     But since Xi's anti-corruption campaign began two years ago, such "gray income" has become off-limits. Nowadays, government officials who abuse their power to build personal wealth are frequently reported to the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and stripped of their status, honors and assets. This works as a powerful incentive to give up gray income.

     Unfortunately for bureaucrats, the Xi leadership is now reviewing the generous pension entitlements offered to retired government workers, according to local news reports.

     In China, retirement age is set at 60 for men and 55 for women. Retired government workers currently receive two to three times higher pension payouts than retired rank-and-file employees of state-run enterprises. The leadership is now considering making bureaucrats join the social insurance system used by employees of state-run companies and others to close the pension entitlement gap.

     Making government jobs less attractive runs the risk of losing the cream of the crop to the private sector, but the leadership continues to make life tougher for public servants. "This is nothing but a calculated move toward administrative reform in the future," said a researcher at a government-affiliated think tank in Shanghai.

     On pace with the country's economic growth, the number of public-sector employees in China has ballooned, crossing the 7.2 million mark in 2014. It could be that Xi's tough stance on civil servants is aimed at encouraging them to leave public employment, making the administrative downsizing process easier.

     "Our real income has declined and our powers will be reduced," said one local government worker. "I feel like looking for another job."

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