Sisi Chen never considered working for the government. A civil service job, she thought, was for people who wanted to “chat all day and read newspapers”, an easy assignment for those on the road to retirement.

Once highly prized in China, government jobs fell steadily in the order of choices for graduates in recent years. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, launched three decades ago, brought in foreign companies and unleashed private enterprise, for the first time giving graduates a sea of choices and six-digit salaries. “A common view is in a government job there’s less pay, less work load and no pressure, that it’s not for young graduates who are ambitious,” says Ms. Chen (22).

But next month, she will be among more than one million graduates attempting to enter the civil service, as the once derided career option finds favour again. In the wake of the financial crisis dozens of multinational firms, the most sought-after employers have either closed down their local operations or cut back on hiring and young Chinese are now turning to government jobs.

Next month, 1.35 million graduates will take the civil service exam, a 310,000 increase in candidates from last year. The competition is the fiercest in decades. Just one position at the Ministry of Science and Technology received 4,224 applications.

Entry into the “iron rice bowl”, as employment in the state-run enterprises was known for providing a lifetime of job security and generous entitlements had for decades been the most sought-after career path for Chinese. Deng’s reforms, launched in 1978, promised to “smash” the iron rice bowl and streamline the state’s bloated enterprises. Between 1992 and 2007, employment in state-owned industries fell from 45 million to 17.5 million. But this past year, employment in the public sector grew by an estimated 250,000, the biggest increase in years, reversing the three-decade-old trend. Part of the reason is much of the $586 billion sanctioned under the government’s stimulus plan, launched in November, went to state-run firms. Economists here say government control over the economy is expanding again, for the first time in decades, against the trend of privatisation.

The resurgence of the public sector is the main factor behind the rising demand for government jobs. Recent public sector reforms are another. In 2006, the Chinese government said it would launch reforms to deal a final, fatal blow to the iron rice bowl. Government officials would now face more appraisals, receive fewer benefits and could even face the sack, part of a move to increase accountability and change public perceptions.

“The image of a civil servant is getting diversified, and not as rigid as before,” says Wang Junjie, who was inspired enough to take the civil service exam last year, though he eventually chose to accept an offer from an American bank.

But Mr. Wang is still in the minority. Despite the renewed interest in public sector jobs, the public perception of under-performing and corrupt officials, not too dissimilar from perceptions in India, largely endures.

Reflecting how strongly this view resonates, a young school girl became an unlikely Internet sensation last month for what millions of bloggers described as her “brave honesty”. Asked by her teacher in front of television cameras what her career ambitions were on the first day of school, she said, “I want to be a government official.” Her reasons, though, were far from patriotic. Asked why, she explained, straight-faced: “Corrupt officials have a lot of good stuff!”

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