China’s 10 million strong civil service is often viewed as the last vestige of China’s ‘iron rice bowl’ culture.
If an applicant passes the notoriously difficult state exam (the public servants exam) he or she is almost assured a job for life, as well as social standing and power.
Such is the appeal of a position in the country’s bureaucracy, that people pay thousands of renminbi for exam coaches and often attempt the test multiple times.
Last year some one million people applied for around 17,000 places.
But last month the government announced an initiative that could significantly reduce career spans of mandarins.
The provinces of Jiangsu, Sichuan, Hunan and Hebei are to start hiring bureaucrats on contracts of between one and five years, Xinhua reports.
The move is part of wider reforms that seek to improve the efficiency of China’s state bureaucracy and reduce the perception of its civil service as a corrupt and pampered elite.
Last year bureaucrats in 24 of China’s 31 provinces and regions lost their access to free health care and this year new regulations were published that prevent people from the same family from serving in the same department.
“The new system will exert pressure on those who don’t take their job seriously,” Xinhua quoted a professor of Social Sciences at Nanjing University as saying.
The ability to hire from outside should also help with the shortage of bureaucrats with technical skills, Xinhua said. As the nation develops, it explained, the government has to deal with increasingly complex and specialised problems.
While many newspapers celebrated the news of the trials, many bemoaned the fact it has taken provinces so long to do so. It became legal to hire outside experts in 2005 but so far only Shenzhen has taken the plunge.
“This is simply re-frying cold rice” wrote the China Daily. “If we really want to break the civil servants’ iron rice bowl we need courage and determination,” it said.
Several newspapers pointed out that there is no evidence that Shenzhen’s pilot scheme had led to an increase in the number of civil servant firings or efficiency.
“It is too optimistic to equate the new system to a porcelain rice bowl yet. No one has heard of any appointee in Shenzhen losing their job,” the Yanzhao Evening News wrote.
Internet users posting on Sina Weibo were the least optimistic of all. “The original intention of the reform plan is good, it should improve initiative and change civil servants’ sluggish and tardy ways. But I still don’t hold high hopes for this thing,” one netizen wrote. “After all, where there are policies, there are countermeasures to deal with them and bureaucrats who have background and connections will never be kicked out.”
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