Jobs for the boys

Why a film star’s new role in a state-run theatre is proving so unpopular

Yi Yangqianqi-w

Bad theatre review: Yi Yangqianxi with former co-star Zhou Dongyu

For many young people in China, working in government departments has become fashionable again. The positions can be tough to get. Registration for the annual civil service exam last year saw a record high number of 2.1 million people competing for just 31,000 jobs. That’s about 67 people for each post, according to HLJ Review, a Hunan-based news commentator.

Prior to the reform era basically everyone worked for the government or a state-owned enterprise. But in the 1980s some started to abandon their so-called ‘iron rice bowls’ and opt for more rewarding opportunities in the private sector. In recent years, however, interest in working for the civil service has revived.

A government position typically promises job security and welfare benefits. Getting a role within the system in big cities can also help solve the problem of obtaining a hukou (a prized residency permit in urban areas). Better still, it often comes with housing subsidies.

The harsh working culture in many private sector firms has also been pushing young job seekers into the state sector.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even the biggest celebrities are now vying for jobs on the state’s payroll. Last week, the National Theatre of China announced to great fanfare that it has provisionally accepted singer Yi Yangqianxi as an actor in the government-sponsored theatre.

Yi first rose to fame as a member of the popular boy band TFBoys. After appearing in many blockbuster films like The Battle at Lake Changjin and Nice View, he is now one of the biggest names in show business. He is also the youngest actor in Chinese film history to have made a cumulative box office of over Rmb10 billion ($1.48 billion).

With his wholesome boy-next-door image and large social media following – he has over 90 million followers on Sina Weibo – Yi is a darling amongst advertisers. He now endorses consumer brands including Emporio Armani, Genki Forest and Master Kong, as well as Huawei’s flagship phone Nova 10, just to name a few.

The theatre Yi is joining is known for bringing classics of Chinese literature and tales of the ruling Communist Party’s origins to the stage. Like other more popular government jobs, a position within the organisation comes with protections against dismissal, housing subsidies or other health and social security benefits.

But once Yi’s appointment was disclosed, it quickly prompted a barrage of discussion online. While many of his fans congratulated their idol for his achievement by reposting the news on their own social media accounts, turning it into one of the hot topics on weibo, others were outraged.

People who have also applied for the position at the National Theatre soon revealed in their own online posts that Yi had been exempted from the written test and only went through a face-to-face interview before he was given the position. Many asked why the selection process wasn’t made public, with some speculating that the list of acceptees may have been predetermined.

To be fair, the former TFBoy member is not the only high-profile star to have secured a government position at the National Theatre. Former boy-band member Luo Yizhou, 22, and actor Hu Xianxu, 21, were also accepted into the same state-run organisation. They all count veteran actress Li Bingbing and actor Sun Honglei as colleagues as well.

Earlier this year, 24 year-old actor Liu Haoran joined the China Coal Mine Art Troupe, another state-run performing arts body. Famous singer-actress Ning Jing has said in previous interviews that despite her commercial success, she still “cherishes” the Rmb3,500 monthly pay cheque she receives from the state’s Shanghai Film Studio as well.

Industry observers say the vitriol against Yi has nothing to do with whether he deserves the role. Instead, many questioned why such commercially successful celebrities like Yi are fighting for jobs that could have been given to those with a greater need.

“Celebrities have already made so much money and their influence is so great, and yet they still use their advantages to compete for positions with ordinary people, taking opportunities that should have been given to people like you and me. For most of us, celebrities that get government roles are like nepotism babies. Is that fair?” Beijing Business Today asked.

The China Daily came to the actor’s defence: “There is no reason to deny a job to anybody who is talented, irrespective of whether he or she is a commoner or a superstar. As long as no unfair means were employed in the recruitment it should not be an issue at all,” the newspaper opined.

The debate has been exacerbated by growing anxiety among job seekers in general. As growth in the Chinese economy slows down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, youth unemployment (those aged between 16 to 24) had risen to a record level of 18.2% in April, according to the government’s data. The situation is only likely to get worse over the next few months as nearly 11 million students graduate from university (which is also a record figure).

During the State Council’s executive meeting this week, Premier Li Keqiang again made job creation a top priority for his cabinet and promised robust policies to keep payrolls stable.

Yi’s new employment has come at a cost to himself, however. The number of his followers on Sina Weibo began to fall after news about his appointment became widely known. Meanwhile, domestic media also reported that the actor has been dropped from Zhang Yimou’s new movie Man Jiang Hong because producers were worried about the growing backlash. There is also speculation that the National Theatre might end up withdrawing its provisional offer to Yi, given all the bad PR.

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