A record two million Chinese this week were expected to have registered for the government’s annual civil service exam — an increase of more than 50 per cent (700,000) compared to last year — reflecting an unexpected rise in popularity of government jobs amid a continuing economic slowdown.

The increasing demand for civil service jobs, said analysts, has marked the return to favour of the “iron rice bowl” — as stable government jobs are known for the security they provide — with private sector employment feeling the pinch of a prolonged slowdown in the economy.

Li Yongxin, head of research of Zhonggong Education, a leading training company for civil service aspirants, has said two million people were expected to file applications for the exam next month. He told the official Xinhua news agency that the rising demand meant that only one in 90 applicants would be hired this year.

In the past decade, jobs with the government and State-run enterprises had fallen out of favour among many young Chinese, left uninspired by the promise of stability offered by the “iron rice bowl”, or “golden rice bowl” — as it is also known for the benefits the civil service brings.

As China began to dismantle the “iron rice bowl”, the vibrant private sector had emerged as a more favoured career option for the ambitious, post-1980s generation, whose members often viewed the civil service as unexciting and rigid. However, in recent years, particularly following the 2008 financial crisis, analysts say the state has again expanded at the expense of the private sector — a trend known here as guo ji min tui, or “the State advances, the private sector retreats”.

Much of the four trillion Yuan stimulus package, analysts say, found its way to State-run enterprises, enabling their resurgence.

Reflecting the trend, a single position in the National Energy Administration last year received 4,961 applicants, Xinhua reported.

The government said it would recruit an additional 3,000 students in 2013 to address the demand.

But with the surge in applications, competition is particularly fierce.

The rising demand is in spite of moves by the government to raise the qualification requirements for civil service aspirants, by making two years’ work experience mandatory for many positions.

The government has also warned applicants that jobs for new entrants will be more demanding and not the paper-pushing desk jobs that many applicants expect.

For instance, applicants to the flood control departments of the Ministry of Water Resources have been told that they may have to work in disaster zone.

“Some have commented on this year’s civil servant positions as being the most bitter golden rice bowl”, said the Global Times in a commentary.

“For many years, the Chinese public saw civil servant positions as decent jobs with low workloads and generous benefits that bring with them a high social status. However, under various levels of supervision and reforms, requirements for the ability of civil servants are increasing.”

The government this year said it would continue the process, initiated a decade ago, of dismantling the vast “iron rice bowl” system.

Starting in southern Guangdong province, the new round of reforms introduced employment contracts for civil servants, ending the usually life-time guarantee of the civil service jobs.

“The new system will break the decades long “iron rice bowl” which used to mean a guaranteed job for life in government,” the official Xinhua news agency reported earlier this year, adding that “civil servants in the province will be paid according to their performance.”

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