Despite the recent spat of news about government officials losing their jobs and getting kicked out of the party for a variety of vices—ostentatious display of watches an official should not be able to afford, visiting prostitutes, falling victim to a honeytrap and getting caught bad-mouthing common people while being secretly video taped—it is still a role most many aspire to. Even if young people don’t want to become one, their parents see it as an ideal path. The recent anti-corruption campaign aimed against the tigers and the flies as evidence to the contrary, most Chinese think of becoming a government official (gongwuyaun 公务员) as a “stable” job. In the current political environment, if officials can manage to keep their mouth shut, stay clear of KTV hostesses, avoid any gaudy displays of wealth and refrain from abusing power for personal gains (potentially a big if), the job probably is just that.
However, the position’s very desirability makes the competition fierce. For the past several years, out of their own volition or due to their parental pressure, between 1.3 and 1.5 five million people sought to become a gongwuyuan. The way to weed out candidates, naturally, is a test: the gongwuyaun kaoshi (公务员考试）or, simply, guokao (国考). The success ratio? Not that high. In 2010, for example, out of more than 1.4 million applicants, 15, 526 got government jobs. In 2013, the most popular positions had a ratio of 9411 applicants to 1 available job.
It actually was not until the 1990s that the People’s Republic of China re-established the civil service system in order to rationalize administration, combat flunkyism and recruit educated young people into the government. Of course, the Civil Service exam was hardly and invention of the PRC. As I outlined in a previous post, the civil service exam or keju （科举）was one of the pillars of Imperial Chinese society.
The current system, which I will explore in more detail in later posts, actually presents the aspirant with a number of decisions. Do I apply for and take the test for central government offices (zhongyang 中央) or do I apply to take the reputedly easier exams for posts in local government? Since there are no geographic restrictions, should I apply for a post in a remote province? When registering for the exam, applicants mark select specific position so the question becomes “Do I apply for a job I might like even though the competition is going to be ridiculous or do I apply to a job I suspect would be awful and is thus thus likely to receive fewer applicants?” The personal and practical calculus of these decisions gets quite complex.
But before applicants can begin pondering these questions there are some basic requirements about who can and can’t take the test. First, and much to my chagrin, only Chinese citizens can register for the exam. There is an age limit as well: you have to be between the ages of 18 and 35, with the cutoff pushed back to 40 for those with a college degree or higher. An applicant has to have good character (lianghao de pinwei 良好的品行) and be of sound body and mind. This last clause opens the door to malfeasance. In one famous case last year a candidate for the Environmental Protection Bureau (Huanbao Ju 环保局）in Shanxi passed the written and oral exams, went to get to get a physical exam and found out that he had a fatal disease. Obviously worried, he went another doctor to start treatment and discovered that he was fine. Since the bureau in question only accepted one person that year—him—the father of the number two candidate paid off the doctor administering the physical to get the young man out of the way. The exam system, in place to eliminate nepotism and corruption, still suffers from it.
There are also a few more regulations about who can’t take the test and they are about what you would expect: criminals, former officials who have been fired, current members of the military and students not in the final year of their academic program. Also, any government official who resigns, retires or leaves service voluntarily without any hint of malfeasance or wrongdoing still has to wait five years before being able to register for the test again.
The test itself is not free. The fees differ depending on whether the applicant applies to the central government or the provincial government, though the cost is not prohibitive, applicants might pay a little more or a little less than 100 yuan. Considering the cost of private schools that teach review courses for the exam that run anywhere from 1,000 to 22,000 yuan, the test fee itself is an afterthought.
The most interesting and harder to answer question, that I will also try to explore later own, relates to an applicant’s relationship to the Communist Party. Though I have not been able to confirm this process, I have been told that when registering for a test and picking a specific position, applicant’s have three choices to describe themselves in relation to the CCP: party member, in the process of applying and hoping to apply.
Looking at the system in terms of who can and can’t take the exam, it is remarkably open. For a long time in China history, various groups—singers and actors, for example—could not even take the civil service exam. Currently, just about anyone in the appropriate age range and without a criminal history can do so.