Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Golden rice bowl' attracts China's best and brightest

By Feng Ke and Katie Hunt, CNN
updated 4:37 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
Wang Zixu said he felt confident after taking China's civil service exam.
Wang Zixu said he felt confident after taking China's civil service exam.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than one million took China's national civil service exam on Sunday
  • It's a tradition that dates back 1,300 years to China's imperial bureaucracy
  • Competition is fierce, with only 19,000 jobs available
  • Central government jobs are often described as a "golden rice bowl" for their stable income and benefits

Beijing (CNN) -- College student Wang Zixu was among the 1.1 million hopefuls who packed out school and universities across China on Sunday to sit the country's civil service exams.

It's a tradition that dates back more than 1,300 years when exams were first held to select the best applicants for ancient imperial bureaucracy. Today's young job seekers are vying for government posts in record numbers.

Like many of the candidates, Wang, who will graduate next year, says the prospect of a stable salary and good benefits make it more appealing than the private sector that attracts many of the most ambitious minds in the U.S. and Europe.

"I think the exam wasn't too hard. I answered all the questions," Wang told CNN after taking the three-hour exam outside the China Institute of Political Science and Law.

On China: making it big in fashion
Noodle making robot popular in China
China students use IV drips before exams
A stall selling energy drinks for exam takers.  A stall selling energy drinks for exam takers.
A stall selling energy drinks for exam takers.A stall selling energy drinks for exam takers.

"The pay is not very high but it has good bonus and social security," he added.

Central government jobs are often described as a "golden rice bowl" for their stable income and generous benefits. Officialdom can also lead to membership of the Chinese Communist Party -- a status symbol in China.

READ: Making the grade in China: Grueling college exams

But with only 19,000 jobs available, Wang's chances of a civil service career are slim. The exam attracted record numbers of applicants, with 1.52 million completing the online registration process up from 30,000 in 2001.

About 7,200 people competed for the most popular position as a researcher with the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, according to The China Daily.

The annual exam includes an aptitude test and a policy essay, and those who pass make it to an interview round.

When China's economy first opened up 30 years ago, going into private business or commerce was seen as the best way to get ahead. But the civil service first began attracting huge numbers of applicants a decade ago, said Zhang Juwei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Population and Labor Economics.

"The private sector in China is not very well structured or developed like the U.S.," he said.

"Most of the people in private companies in China, unless their positions are high, they usually don't pay well or have a clear career ladder to move up."

Many of the candidates are university graduates and the increase in the numbers applying for government jobs reflects a surge in the number of university graduates entering a fiercely competitive job market. This year a record seven million graduated, up from around two million a decade ago, according to Chinese magazine Caijing.

Xu Ru and her friend Liu Jiashuang were among the class of 2013 trying their luck. While some prepare by taking crash courses offered by cram schools, Xu said she had not studied for the exam.

"Everyone is taking it today, so I just feel like I should give it a try, and if I got it, it would be simply great," she said.

None of the half a dozen candidates CNN spoke to said they were concerned by the government's anti-corruption drive that has targeted both high and low-ranking officials. "I think I would not do that -- I have my own principles," said a man called Wang, who said he didn't do well in the exam this time around and would consider taking it again next year.

The exam is also seen as being relatively transparent and fair in a society where connections can often count for more than ability. Parents also think it's a suitable career in today's uncertain economy.

"I mean for a girl, being a civil servant can be ideal. I know people who worked in the private sector here, they jump from place to place, it's a lot of pressure," said Fu Wenxia, the mother of an exam taker.

Feng Ke reported from Beijing, Katie Hunt wrote from Hong Kong

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:13 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
A smuggler in Dandong, a Chinese border town near North Korea, tells CNN about the underground trade with North Korean soldiers
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Yenn Wong got quite a surprise one morning earlier this month when she found out an exact copy of her Hong Kong restaurant had opened in China.
updated 11:15 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Each year Yi Jiefeng does what she can to stop China turning into a desert.
updated 10:54 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
As its relationship with the West worsen, Russia is pivoting east in an attempt to secure business with China.
updated 10:29 PM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
Aspiring Chinese comics performing in Shanghai's underground comedy scene hope to bring stand-up to the masses.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Liu Wen is one of the world's highest-paid models and the first Chinese face to crack the top five in Forbes' annual list of top earners.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Cunning wolf? Working class hero? Or bland Beijing loyalist? C.Y. Leung was a relative unknown when he came to power in 2012.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
 A man uses his smartphone on July 16, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan. Only 53.5% of Japanese owned smartphones in March, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Communications on July 15, 2014. The survey of a thousand participants each from Japan, the U.S., Britain, France, South Korea and Singapore, demonstrated that Japan had the fewest rate of the six; Singapore had the highest at 93.1%, followed by South Korea at 88.7%, UK at 80%, and France at 71.6%, and U.S. at 69.6% in the U.S. On the other hand, Japan had the highest percentage of regular mobile phone owners with 28.7%. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
App hopes to help those seeking a way out of China's overstrained public health system.
updated 8:20 PM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yards from pro-democracy protests, stands the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's armed forces.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
The massive street rallies that have swept Hong Kong present a major dilemma for China's leadership.
updated 3:07 AM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
Chinese wine drinkers need to develop a taste for the cheap stuff, not just premium red wines like Lafite.
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
ADVERTISEMENT