A waste of talent

Why a Beida PhD opts to become a chengguan


Now the tough bit begins

Three years of high school, three years for a bachelor’s degree, two years for a master’s, and at least three years for a PhD – that’s how long many of the recent applicants for lowly government jobs in Beijing spent in education.

As China’s economy contracts due to Covid-19 and government crackdowns on the tech and education sectors, more of the country’s university graduates are struggling to find decent employment.

The response, as it often is in times of uncertainty, has been to apply for government jobs that at least guarantee long tenure and a good pension. In big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, they also offer a quick route to municipal residency or hukou.   

Proof that this is again a strong trend amongst young Chinese came this month when local authorities at Chaoyang, Beijing’s biggest and richest district, published a list of new employees – 95% of which have either a Phd or a master’s degree.

The applicant who caught most people’s attention was a young man who had received a doctorate in physics from Peking University. His new role – having submitted a lengthy application and sat an exam – is as a much-hated chengguan or urban management officer (for more background on why they are held in such low esteem by Chinese citizens, see WiC203). 

“What does it say about our economy that a trained physicist thinks becoming a chengguan is his best bet,” asked one confused Sina Weibo user.

According to a recent report published by the China Institute for Employment Research and Zhaopin, an employment search website, there are fewer jobs available than the number of job-seeking college graduates. Making matters worse, there will be a bumper crop of university graduates this year with more than ten million receiving bachelor’s diplomas. The report said demand for college graduates had fallen 11% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2021, while at the same time the number of applicants rose substantially.

CIER and Zhaopin said the biggest contractions came in the tech and education sectors. The tutoring industry appears to be terminally damaged as well thanks to Beijing’s decision to ban for-profit extra-curricular classes in any school-taught subject. “The current employment situation of college graduates is still severe and complicated,” the report said.

Other examples of highly qualified graduates taking low or mid-level roles, includes a woman with a PhD taking a position at a high school, and a returnee from a prestigious British university taking a county-level administrative job.

Some 44% of graduates say they would prefer to find a government job or a post at a state-owned enterprise, up from 42% a year ago, data compiled by Zhilian Recruitment showed.

As a result of the surplus of jobseekers, salaries are dropping by as much as 12% for those that can find a position, the Global Times said. 

The facts on the ground contrast with the rosy view laid out by China’s recent government white paper on “Youth in the New Era” which claimed that the young of today were “living in the best times in Chinese history”.

“The current young generation enjoys an enabling environment for development, a broad space to grow, and wonderful opportunities to make a good career,” it added.

The policy paper, the first on this subject, was released in response to growing concerns that young Chinese are simply ‘checking out’ and choosing not to knuckle down to save for a house or striving to have kids because these things cost too much or induce too much stress – a trend known as the tangping movement (or ‘lying flat’ – for more on this see our explainer in WiC544).

Civil service exams last November attracted over 2 million participants – or more than 60 applicants for every position available.

China Education News acknowledged that instances of overqualified people going into non-specialist jobs might be deemed a waste of talent, wondering too whether it may even hurt the nation’s high-tech strategy if such a trend continues.

However, it refused to distinguish between “high” and “low” jobs saying that the popularisation of higher education meant it was natural for the overall number of qualified students to go up.

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