by Irina Jiang
Image: Saulo Mohana / Unsplash
How can one find security during a volatile time? For graduates from top Chinese universities, the answer is working as civil servants. Civil servants are those who work for the government in positions such as firefighters, social workers, teachers, and army attorneys. Earning on average 6000 RMB ($930 USD) per month, civil servants make less than the monthly fee of some gym memberships in Beijing. In 2020, 1.6 million people passed background checks to take national civil-service exams, a 140,000 increase from the year before. Almost a million candidates eventually took the exam, in the hopes of obtaining one of the meager 25,700 jobs available. Despite the low salary and strenuous government work, many choose to be civil servants due to the subsidized housing, health insurance, and pension benefits that come with the occupation. Most importantly, there is almost no risk of unemployment: civil servants have “Bianzhi”, by which they might change the sector they work for but will never lose their jobs.
Miss Zhu (not her real name) chose to be a civil servant after graduating from a highly competitive master’s program in university. According to her, well-paid jobs at multinational companies were attractive to young people, but nowadays, the trends are changing. Chinese multinational company workers almost never advance beyond middle management positions and are the first to be laid off when difficult times hit. Five million Chinese lost their jobs during the first two months of the pandemic. Chinese local technology companies such as Tencent and Alibaba are no better: though offering relatively high salaries, they are constantly censored by the media for their “996” schedule (toiling from 9am to 9pm for 6 days a week). Therefore, about a third of Miss Zhu’s classmates applied for civil service while only three joined technology companies.
Concerns rose with this new trend of seeking security. Is it a waste of talent for top university graduates in China to earn only $930 USD per month or $11,160 USD annually? Under the pretext that average Ivy League graduates in the U.S. earn an annual average of $80,000, being civil servants in China seems like an unfavorable option indeed. However, as of recently a new term called “involution” spread over social media, more Chinese are now trying to focus on their mental well-being instead of the monetary compensation from toiling.
“Involution” refers to the vain competition among individuals in a highly advanced society that will not benefit anyone in the long run. For example, when a high school student is learning college level courses for a higher chance to be admitted into top universities, other students will do the same in an attempt to achieve the same. When applied to society as a whole, although everyone thought they would stand out by putting in efforts, the reality is far from true. Progressively, one might have to put in even more effort in order to achieve the same accomplishments than in the past.
Knowing it is extremely difficult to stand out in a company, even with hard work, especially under a volatile time post-pandemic, choosing to be a civil servant is definitely the more reasonable choice.There is no need to work overtime, face the fear of unemployment, or compete with other employees. The time and energy saved from being a civil servant can be used productively to develop interests, socialize, or spend time with family. The majority Chinese employees who work for high paid firms are being described as “living to work,” but “working to live” is a more ideal lifestyle.
Being a civil servant is never a waste of talent. It is rather a shame that the majority of employees are sacrificing their health and personal life to secure their positions in firms. Many of them forget that the whole point of getting an education or high paying job is to achieve better living qualities and mental health. Sacrificed health, mental wellbeing, and time are behind those glamorous “elites” and their pay checks . The choice to be a civil servant is neither “unambitious” nor “loserly”. Instead, it is ending “live to work” and starting “work to live”; it embodies self love; and it represents the courage to live against “appropriate” social norms with an insightful understanding of the vain competition crippling our society.