“When I grow up, I want to be a corrupt official. Corrupt officials get lots of presents.” Five years ago, this famously was the dream of a six-year-old primary school student in Guangzhou. Today, it seems the prospect of becoming a corrupt official is not quite as attractive as it once was.
Firstly, there are fewer civil service jobs to go around; government streamlining has meant that vacancies are down. Secondly, the on-going campaign against corruption and off-the-books (grey) income has meant that the earning potential of the jobs that do remain has been significantly reduced. And finally, now that just about everyone has a smartphone, the chances of being exposed as a corrupt official are greatly increased.
That just leaves the regular monthly pay cheque, which in many poorer, less developed regions of China can be paltry to say the least, just a few thousand yuan a month in many cases. Of course, civil servants still have relatively good job security and a generous benefits package but that is unlikely to attract ambitious young graduates looking to get ahead in life.
The evidence can be seen in the numbers of people enrolling in the National Civil Service Examination this year. The eastern coastal province of Zhejiang saw a 37 percent drop in applications compared with last year and the lowest enrolment rate in four years. Some more lucrative positions still attracted a lot of candidates but overall, the numbers were way down, between ten to 30 percent lower in most provinces..
Even before the exam enrolment figures came out, there had been extensive debate in China about the pay and conditions of civil servants in China. Several lawmakers and policy advisors at the recent meeting of the national legislature in Beijing argued that civil servants deserved a pay rise.
"We should increase the pay for civil servants… Civil servants at the grassroots level work very hard but their incomes are relatively low, which affects their working morale," said Yang Shiqiu, deputy head of the State Administration of Civil Service.
However many others pointed out the perks and benefits officials received meant they were less deserving of a pay rise than many others.
"Many civil servants enjoy free medical care and a good pension without even having to pay any pension contributions," said Zhu Zhengxu, a National People’s Congress deputy and court judge from Henan. "That's why the public gets angry when they demand a pay raise. The existing privileges have led to the estrangement of civil servants and the public."
The issue of civil servant pay clearly cannot be divorced from pension payments and benefits. Currently, just about everyone accepts that the official retirement age needs to increase, just as important is the need to bring the pension systems of the public and private sector into closer alignment so that the pay-levels of civil servants can be better assessed.