BEIJING – More than 1 million people took China’s national civil service exam over the weekend in a modern version of an age-old rite, but they faced huge odds against clinching one of the few government jobs available.
A total of 1.12 million took the National Public Servant Exam, according to figures from the State Administration of Civil Service figures.
But only 19,000 positions were available, the state-run Global Times newspaper said, meaning that fewer than 1 in 50 candidates will be successful.
The most competitive role was with the National Ethnic Affairs Commission, where 14,384 candidates were vying for just two jobs, it said.
Domestic reports said it was so popular because the application process appeared to be less arduous than for other positions.
Government jobs are especially appealing to Chinese because they are seen as stable employment and bring with them a range of privileges, as well as the status of being an official.
The benefits can include living allowances, pensions, health insurance and even property — a valuable commodity in China’s prolonged housing boom.
The current civil service test is a legacy of the ancient imperial examination known as the “keju,” introduced during the Sui Dynasty, which ruled from 580-618 AD, and often regarded as a key meritocratic element of the governing system.
Early forms of the examinations were largely based on Confucian texts. They were open only to boys who were able to complete their education, either because of family wealth or sponsorship by benefactors.
The tests were only held every three years, and local officials would often present those who passed with a special banner to be hung at the entrance to their home, to ensure the success was remembered for generations.
Nonetheless many posters on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, ridiculed the candidates.
“This really is China’s peculiar landscape,” said one poster with the user name “Law and its value.” “Do they really want to pass the test to ‘serve the people?’ No. They desperately hope to go and enjoy a privileged system of wages.”
Another said: “Every time (they take the test), they are in fact just competing to be able to take bribes and bend the law.”
After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, employment in China’s huge state apparatus was achieved largely through personal recommendation or graduation from state colleges.
But an open examination system was introduced in 1994 and later rolled out to include all new government jobs, amid growing public resentment over nepotism, official abuse and jobs being offered on the basis of loyalty to party ideology, rather than ability.
There were 7 million civil servants in China by the end of 2012, government figures show.
The annual exam includes an aptitude test and a written policy essay. Candidates who pass the written exam will then be subjected to a tough interview round.
Exams can be taken at different levels of government, but the annual National Public Servant Exam offers the best jobs with the state.
“Although the national civil service exam is more difficult than the provincial, I wanted to accumulate experience for other provincial exams,” the Global Times quoted one candidate Liu Yue as saying.
The postgraduate was seeking one of two vacancies at the Tianjin Maritime Affairs Bureau — alongside 800 other applicants.