The daily grind of a junior civil servant in Beijing – no money, no respect

04 September 2014

The issue of civil servants’ pay has been widely debated in China over the last year. Civil servants complain that their pay is far too low but members of the public have little sympathy, arguing that civil servants have a wide range of benefits and can always earn more money off-the-books (so-called “grey income”) by abusing their official position.

Last month, China Youth Daily talked to a young civil servant in Beijing, Li Ming, who was anxious to dispel some of the myths about the service. He earned just over 3,000 yuan a month, about the same as a factory worker in Shenzhen, and said that nearly all of his salary was gone by the end of the month.

Li explained that the government’s austerity drive and clampdown on corruption meant that no one had any chance to earn grey income anymore or spend the public’s money for their own benefit. Even his bosses, he said, were now going around on bicycles rather than in cars.

In order to regain the public’s trust, Li argued that civil servants should publicly declare their assets, and even suggested that getting a promotion within the civil service should be contingent on making such a declaration. Li displayed a strong sense of civic responsibility and said he planned to spend a few years working in China’s remote border regions so that he could face more challenges and become a better person – although he did admit this endeavour might also aid his promotion prospects within the civil service.

China Labour Bulletin has translated the China Youth Daily article (“我一个月3000多元工资,没有其他收入”) in full below.


“I get paid just over 3,000 yuan a month; I don’t have any other income”

Reported by Xin Ming and China Youth Daily Intern, Chen Siyi.  21August 2014   

In September 2013, Li Ming (alias), a recent graduate from a university here in Beijing, started work as a civil servant in one of the city’s numerous sub-district offices. In one month’s time, he will become a full member of the team. He explains:

I knew before I joined the office that the pay would not be too high, the work would be complicated and that I would have to do unpaid overtime. I have worked here for almost a year, and I feel it is okay. I think young people should not set their sights too high in the beginning or think they are too good for something. Even if I worked at an enterprise rather than in the civil service, I would still need to start from the bottom.

There are four people in Li Ming’s office; the section chief, the vice-section chief, a principal staff member and him. They are mainly responsible for public relations and maintaining the image of the sub-district. "It is a grassroots organization so there are many things to do, some quite random, so we are very busy sometimes," said Li Ming.

They classify media according to different administrative levels; national, municipal and district. In the print media, Li mostly deals with publications from the district, with a few from the municipal level.

Whenever there are government-sponsored events in the sub-district, it is Li’s job to get reporters to cover them. Some time ago, the office launched a campaign to help recent graduates, the unemployed and idle-at-home find employment. A lot of companies were invited to the launch and Li had to phone the media and persuade them to attend.

Li Ming and his colleagues have to compile statistics on how many times the sub-district gets mentioned in the media. Li has to make newspaper cuttings for their records and then enter the name of the newspaper, date of publication, and the name of the reporter into an Excel spread sheet.

Li is also responsible for managing the sub-district’s microblog. Every government office in the city now has its own microblog, and the person in charge is called an "Internet commentator."  Li says:

Some sub-district offices do not really understand the value of social media but I think it is very important.  Some netizens do not see issues rationally and they are easily taken in by rumours or superficial facts, so it's very helpful to be able to eliminate these rumours and negative impacts by stating the government's point of view.

Li feels it is important to remain calm and rational when dealing with netizens’ questions and complaints, and always seek to resolve the issue at hand. 

Li Ming has to login to the official website at work before he can browse the Internet. All members of staff have an official website account and a fixed IP address. Playing games, shopping, watching videos and investing in stocks during working hours are all banned and offenders will be subject to varying degrees of punishment. If you go to a shopping website, the time spent on that site will be logged by the office administrator but if you invest in stocks, play games, or watch videos, that will be reported to your supervisors and you will be punished accordingly. If you need to buy something online, you must first inform your supervisor, and once the purchase is approved, it will be recorded by the discipline inspection commission.

Li says he is gradually learning more even though his job duties remain the same." At first I needed someone to tell me what to do but now I have to consider how to work better by myself. In other words, I take the initiative to do things myself rather than wait for my boss to tell me what I should do."

Many new civil servants are graduates. They are relatively well educated and understand that it's the taxpayers that support us and that we all have a common identity – the government. We know we have to keep our emotions in check no matter what kind of complaints people have. I think my colleagues and I are not too bad in this regard.

Outside working hours, Li spends his time at home in his rented room, reading books; novels, essays and academic and political books. "People should read more books," he says.

Li shares his 70 square metre apartment with his colleagues. He told us his monthly salary is 3,300 yuan, and that the 800 yuan rent is his biggest expense. In addition, he needs to pay 150 yuan for water and electricity, 700 yuan for food, 600 yuan on entertainment, 100 yuan for phone charges, and 100 yuan for transportation costs. His biggest headache comes when his friends get married because he has to give them cash gifts, usually 500 yuan, even if they are just acquaintances. On the average, he has to pay up once or twice a month. "There is no money left at the end of the month. I’m lucky if I don’t have to borrow."

Li says there are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to civil servants’ pay and this leads to the negative opinions voiced by some netizens in China.

First of all, they equate civil servants with officials. But of the hundreds of thousands of civil servants in China, only a few have any real power; most are just low-level servants like us. I get 3,300 yuan each month. That will go up by 600 yuan when I become a full member, but even so it's still not high.

We see a lot of reports on how tough it is for civil servants but about 90 percent of the comments underneath the report are like "poor you! Why don’t you just resign?" or "you say your salary is low, why do not you show us your grey income and bonuses?"  We cannot say there is no such thing as grey income but we ordinary civil servants just do not have the power to earn it. Now the central government has also introduced various rules and regulations to regulate the behaviour of senior officials to prevent them from abusing their power to earn extra income. Beijing has implemented the sunshine wage system, but our wages have not gone up for many years. You know, our Chief's salary is just a little bit higher than mine and he has been working there for 30 years.

Li is in favour of civil servants publicly declaring their assets. He feels that people are opposed to increasing civil servant pay because of the lack of transparency about government officials’ income. It is therefore necessary he said to establish a top-down, scientific, asset declaration system. "Such systems have been piloted in some places but have been met with resistance. So the government can try out the system starting with us and the previous two graduate intakes. For example, before we get promoted, they can tell us to sign an asset declaration agreement, and if you don’t sign it, you won’t get promoted. I feel this will be a good start."

Li hopes for a wage mechanism for civil servants that can reward individual contributions to society and at the same time keep up with inflation. “Commodity prices are rising, housing prices are rising; it is only wages that are not rising. How can we work with confidence when we can’t even support our family?"

Li has seen a few changes in civil service benefits over the past year. "Before the central government issued explicit regulations, departments could hand out eggs, milk, fruit, noodles etc. every week or so. But after the regulations came out, that all ended."

“To be honest, I am in favour of such rules because people can no longer say we misuse government money," Li said.

Li was adamant that he and his colleagues would never use public money for their own benefit such as entertaining guests.

The boss will never allow us to go out drinking on business-related matters and we never go out as guests of private companies. If we go out eat, we do it at our own expense. Controls on public money are particularly tight right now. If you buy some office supplies, you have to get your supervisor’s signature and then the signature of the Chief of Finance before applying for reimbursement. Some companies organize employee excursions but we never get such benefits.

There has also been a significant change in the use of government vehicles: “In the past, we often used cars but now we use bikes. Even the bosses ride a bike as much as possible. Cars are used only when we have too much stuff to carry on our bikes.”

After nearly a year in the job, Li feels he still needs time to develop a steadier and more thoughtful outlook on life and discover what he really has to offer. He thinks this can best be achieved through grassroots work.

Looking ahead, Li wants to gain experience by working on secondment in China’s border regions. Due to policy requirements, he must stay in his current position for at least four years before making such a move, so Li intends to submit his application in four years’ time. After two or three years’ experience in the field, he plans to return to his Beijing office.

He believes that his abilities are still limited and that young people need to gain experience, especially at the grassroots. The border regions appeal to him because they are remote, he will certainly experience hardship, and be able to test himself.

In addition, Li reckons you have to do something special to get a promotion in the civil service. Basically seniority is the most important factor but the vast majority of civil servants do not get promoted to leadership positions. In theory, a clerk could become a deputy director’s clerk after just three years, a director’s clerk after six years, a deputy director after nine, and a director after 12 years. But Li explained:

This is like taking a helicopter rather than a going on a cruise. In most cases, it is not like this. There are some guys in our department who are still deputy director’s clerks at the age of 40 or more. That is just one grade above me. They will likely still be at that grade when they retire.

Li hopes that his experience in China’s border regions will enhance his promotion prospects: “I will certainly come across many different situations in the border regions, encounter many things and understand much more."

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