China’s Young Elite Clamber for Government Jobs. Some Come to Regret It.

In Beijing and cities across China, as many as 2.6 million job applicants, including graduates from the country’s top universities, will report to testing centers in early January to face exceedingly long odds and compete for 37,100 entry-level government jobs.

The national exam is an annual rite for young Chinese, some of whom spend thousands of dollars for prep classes and many hours cramming for it. It comes at a fraught time. It was supposed to be given in early December, then was canceled at the last minute. The government cited Covid-19 lockdowns, but the exam was postponed days after protests in more than a dozen cities against China’s severe pandemic restrictions.

Jobs in China’s vast Civil Service have long been considered prestigious launching pads for a career. They include entry-level roles typical in any economy, like clerks in municipal government, and some that are unique to China, such as assisting in the country’s extensive censorship bureaucracy.

But these days the jobs are also coveted out of necessity, because it’s especially hard for new graduates to find employment at private companies.

Nearly one in five people between the ages of 16 and 24 in China are unemployed. Alibaba, Tencent and other tech firms have laid off workers. Economic growth has been battered by a sharp real estate slump, and small businesses suffered under the Covid restrictions, which paralyzed large parts of the country for weeks or months at a time. The “zero Covid” policy has been scrapped, but the economy is not expected to quickly snap back.

“It’s just that they don’t have so many opportunities in the private sector,” said Alfred Wu, a professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The competition for public service positions is so fierce that people often refer to them with a Chinese saying: “thousands of troops crossing a single-plank bridge.”

The exam is rigorous. Test takers must answer about 130 multiple-choice questions covering topics like math, data analysis, science and economics. They are asked to write five essays of 200 to 1,000 words each on social issues and government policies. Scoring highly increases the chances of getting a job, although getting hired means enduring a battery of interviews, background checks and other reviews.

Then there’s the reality of Civil Service work. Some say their days are ruled by rigid hierarchies and involve monotonous chores. Others, while saying they enjoy their jobs, complain that their responsibilities often sprawl beyond normal work hours. The role they had to play enforcing China’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid the past three years was a sore spot.

Amy Liu, who has served as a clerk in Beijing’s municipal government for the past six years, said she mostly enjoyed her work, learned a lot from it and found her days satisfying.

But in the last few years, she has been dragged into the “zero Covid” campaign. Like everyone in her department, she was required to volunteer at virus testing sites once a week when there were a high number of cases. She was instructed to stand guard and keep crowds in line.

“This type of thing irritates me so much,” Ms. Liu said.

This was in addition to other required tasks unrelated to her job, such as study sessions about Communist Party history, ideology lessons organized by the propaganda department, and tutorials about law and discipline from the anticorruption department. These topics have taken on greater importance throughout China since Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

Working in public service has a rich history in modern China. Government jobs were once prized — an earlier generation referred to them as “iron rice bowls” because of their stability. They offered security and regular work hours. But after the Chinese economy started to open up, many young people chose instead to pursue the riches and opportunities available in the private sector.

That trend has reversed under Mr. Xi. The heavier hand of the state on parts of the economy like technology has made those private-sector jobs less attractive and harder to find, while also putting new burdens on Civil Service workers.

“The culture of the entire Chinese local government has changed, from encouraging the innovative economy and developing tourism to achieving the goal of political security and pleasing the supervisors,” said Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University who focuses on Chinese society.

These jobs have been particularly tough during the pandemic. China’s rigid policies created a thicket of rules that civil servants had to enforce, and that made frontline workers “punching bags” and “decompression valves,” Liberation Daily, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, stated in an April article during a lockdown in Shanghai that lasted two months.

Mr. Xi has said China needed to ease the burden on lower-level government workers by reducing “formality for formality’s sake and bureaucracy,” noting how government departments in some cities force staff to complete paperwork that doesn’t solve real problems. But it’s not clear whether the relaxation of “zero Covid” will change the nature of the entry-level jobs, at least in ways that will make the work more appealing.

It’s a hard time for a young person to start a career in China. “They know that the opportunities generated by China’s rapid growth no longer belong to this generation,” Mr. Wu, the China expert in Singapore, said. That frustration among many young people, he said, was expressed in the surge of protests that rocked China in November.

“Of course, the protests must have had something to do with Covid, but they also showed their desperate side,” he added.

Despite dissatisfaction with their work, some of the young civil servants said they felt trapped because there was no guarantee that they would find something better in the private sector. In addition, they said they often felt pressured by parents who value a stable job and revel in the status of a child working for the government.

“My parents think it’s good to be a civil servant,” Ms. Liu said. “They think I should never leave.”

Katherine Shi has a job that, at first, sounds alluring to many young graduates: She watches television for a living. Ms. Shi is a government censor who searches for vulgarity, politically sensitive content and other forbidden subjects on TV and in movies.

The job has become hard to bear, she said. Some days, she is asked to censor 100 hours of video and make sure nothing slips by. Even with watching videos at double speed, Ms. Shi said it was impossible to deal with the workload.

She often feels conflicted at work, she said, because there are many things that she does not find objectionable but that fall under censorship guidelines. She is ordered to censor an ever-growing list of content, such as videos about L.G.B.T.Q. people, tattoos or so-called “lie flat” values, a counterculture approach that has gained popularity in China for embracing a lack of ambition and wanting an easy, uncomplicated life. In a crime movie, censors need to make sure that criminals are always punished.

“Culture should be very free, and you should allow the expressions of some so-called negative energy and the dark side of society because they truly exist,” Ms. Shi said. She said she felt that some people in the government had closed their eyes to how the world really was.

“I was very distressed about this,” she said, adding that she is considering quitting to study abroad.

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