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In China, many graduates dream of coveted slot in the bureaucracy

BEIJING—Bureaucrats are maligned in much of the world, but in China civil servants rock, baby. Many college graduates yearn for bureaucratic futures.

More than 500,000 people will take a national civil service exam on Nov. 26 in the hope of winning one of 10,282 coveted positions in the pencil-pushing world of the central government. That's up from 310,000 people who took the test last year.

The civil service competition is more difficult than passing the college entrance exam, according to the government's Xinhua News Agency. More than 48 people compete for each available job.

The reasons young people want these jobs are varied, and they shed light on the social and economic changes that are sweeping China.

Barely a decade ago, college graduates dreamed of working for foreign corporations, viewing them as an entree to high salaries and world-class training skills. Now many shun the grinding hours and lack of job security, saying they prefer the stability that lower-paying government jobs offer.

"It's less stressful. You have more time for your life. You can do what you really like to do," said Zhang Hua, 24, who's finishing her master's degree in finance, prepping for the civil service exam and hoping to become a state auditor.

She's also applying for a job at the Beijing office of a global accounting firm, but dreads what she hears are 13-hour workdays. "You spend too much time at the job."

Bureaucrats have long enjoyed high social status in China. Emperors ruled China for many centuries through a system of civil servants, or mandarins, who ran regional and local governments. Commoners won civil servant slots through competitive exams, not through hereditary position.

"There is a saying in traditional Chinese culture: The best students become officials," said Qi Guanghua, a professor of public administration at People's University of China.

The Communists took over China in 1949, and for the next four and a half decades college graduates largely were assigned work in the government or state-owned enterprises. By the late 1970s, China veered from central planning to free markets, and by 1994 the civil service exam was re-established. By 2000, the exam opened the door to more government jobs.

Multinational corporations are everywhere in China these days, and few Chinese have illusions about how far they can rise in such firms.

"It's an obvious problem for Chinese students to get promotions in foreign companies. It's hard for them to become executives or partners. They can end up at age 45 as average employees," Qi said.

In contrast, government bureaucracies respect age over merit.

"As long as you wait long enough, you will have a chance to get promoted," Qi said.

Under China's one-party rule, bureaucrats can wield enormous authority over people's lives. Moreover, bureaucrats frequently rub elbows with mid-ranking Communist Party officials, gaining access to the nation's real powerbrokers.

"In China, relationships among people are very important," said Cheng Tingting, 25, a graduate student from northeast China who dreams of a civil servant job.

Added her roommate, Lu Xiaozhen, who also is preparing for the civil service exam: "You may encounter difficult problems in your life. You can't resolve them by yourself, or with money. You need connections."

Bureaucratic posts are increasingly coveted as college graduates find themselves struggling to get work. Only 73 percent of last year's 2.8 million graduates found jobs.

Lu, 24, said competition for government jobs is so strong that her chances to snag one are nearly "hopeless," but she added that a civil service job would be great for her dream of having a family and spending time with them.

Some female applicants say government jobs discriminate less against women. Unlike some private companies, which balk at maternity leaves or discriminate in promotions, the upper ranks of China's bureaucracy include many women.

While the "iron rice bowl" system that once offered Chinese womb-to-grave social security has disintegrated, civil service jobs retain numerous perks.

Some government jobs come with free or low-cost housing, Zhang said. "Few companies can offer you that," she said.

Average salary for civil servants in Beijing and Shanghai is about 3,000 yuan ($371) a month, Xinhua said.

Another reason for the rising popularity of the civil service exam is the recent abolition of a requirement that applicants have legal permanent residence in Beijing, a huge hurdle for those from the provinces.

The civil service exam is open to any college graduate under age 35. Roughly half of college graduates are Communist Party members, though that's not a requirement for the exam. Still, essay questions on the exam make it easy to weed out potential troublemakers.

Last year's exam asked applicants to riff in an essay on the theme of "How to Create a More Harmonious Society," a topic rife with possibilities for applicants familiar with recent Communist Party five-year plans and policy platforms.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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