In Brief: Why People Become Officials

I came across this poll on Sina Weibo today and couldn’t help but be amused by the responses to it. This year’s Civil Service Exam is kicking off, and millions of budding officials the nation over are putting pens to paper — or at least talking about doing it on Weibo. Buy why do they want to take the test and become government officials? Let’s find out!

Disclaimer: Blah blah online poll, low sample size, skewed demographics, got it.

You can check out the poll here, but you’ll need a Weibo account to vote, and you’ll need to vote yourself before you can view the results. Of course it’s highly unscientific, but can anyone say they’re really surprised to see this? It goes a long way towards explaining why Chinese officials are often so terrible at serving the people — apparently only 19% of them were interested in doing that in the first place!

Everybody else is apparently just in it for the perks (or because their moms told them they had to).

(Note for the tonedeaf, because I have a feeling the disclaimer isn’t going to be obvious enough for some of you: this is being posted mostly for the purposes of humor and yes, obviously, a Weibo poll with a few thousand results doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of China about the civil service exam or the service that comes after it.)

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0 thoughts on “In Brief: Why People Become Officials”

  1. I guess the folk who would say:

    “’cause I want to eat dinner for free in the fanciest restaurants in town, drive a flash car, wear designer gear which totals twice my annual salary, be photoshopped into propaganda pictures, have three mistresses on the go, soak contruction projects so they fall apart in a weak breeze, get my kids into fancy schools so they don’t get crushed to death with the peons when said construction projects collapse, be allowed to leave burning theatres first leaving said peons to their fates, allow my kids to hit-and-run peons in their sports cars at 70 KPH, divvy up the profits from knocking down and rebuilding whole neighbourhoods with my cronies, drink shit-tasting Johnny Walkers mixed with green tea at my local KTV every night, and STILL have a good portion of the Chinese population brainwashed to believe that I am a self-sacrificing type who wants only to serve the people”

    are included in option three?


  2. Ha! Civil service certainly ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.

    But, to be perfectly frank, I think the people who want to become civil servants primarily because it’s the wish of their parents deserve a bit more respect. Filiality is more and more becoming an act of lip-service; the more people actually take it seriously, I think, the better off the society will be. Some of the best and most driven Chinese students here (at the graduate school of public and international affairs), are here because their parents wanted them to come.


  3. @ MF Cooper: There’s a big difference between filial piety and living your own life the way someone else wants you to live it. Certainly, parental pressure and guilt tripping has created some great achievers — especially academically — but it’s also created some deeply miserable, unfulfilled adults. That doesn’t happen all the time, of course, but I don’t think more people going into fields their parents want them to go into is going to do much to improve society, especially in a society like China’s where there are often huge gaps between the level of education of kids and their parents.

    Just for example, parents are likely to suggest their kids become officials because that’s seen as one of the last remaining 铁饭碗, and because it brings them a little status I suppose. Many parents would discourage their kids from going into working at an internet company, for example, because a lot of them don’t understand the internet and it’s seen as a relatively dangerous, unstable field.

    Of course, all that might be true. But I’d argue that the guys behind Sina Weibo have done more to improve Chinese civil society than any official I could name. And while you can certainly make some money as a corrupt official, you can’t make Robin Li money that way.

    Moreover, sending more people into officialdom that have no interest in it isn’t going to make society better. China desperately needs officials who give a shit about their jobs, not officials whose parents give a shit about their jobs.


  4. @ C Custer: With the disclaimer that I fully realise that you fully realise the limitations of this poll (and the additional disclaimer that we needn’t proceed down an infinite regress of game-theoretic rationality assumptions), if this poll is as WYSIWYG as it appears, then I would raise the objection that an answer of 父母的要求 doesn’t necessarily imply the sort of nagging and guilt-tripping you’re ascribing to it. (From general experience with both Chinese classmates and their parents, I don’t buy into the cultural myth of the extreme Asian parent; parents on the 大陸 are actually – nowadays – quite a bit more lenient than Amy Chua, though they may have all of the aforementioned reasons in mind when persuading their children to enter civil service.)

    And, actually, you bring up a very good point. The disappearance of stable jobs may be another huge motivating factor in the scramble for civil service positions, particularly given the 蟻族 phenomenon (which makes graduate unemployment in the United States look like sunshine and daisies)! While I agree with you that a number of people may be joining the civil service for the wrong reasons, and that this certainly contributes to problems with corruption, I don’t think the wider systemic problems with the Western-modelled, increasingly skills-based education system and the limitations of the China’s current state-capitalist economic model can be ignored as a factor in producing this problem.


  5. Anyone with elementary level Chinese would know 待遇 means pay and benefits when referring to jobs. It does not mean getting “better treatment [from others]”. It’s your misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

    Also, 公务员(Civil Servants) are entry-level positions, they are not necessarily government officials (as in 政府官员).

    I fail to see what’s so amusing about it. It’s true anywhere in the would that not everyone gets to do what they love to do. So most people go for jobs that are secure and with better pay. It requires a REAL job to support a family, you will understand it eventually, Cuter. At least 公务员(Civil Servant) is a real job.


  6. Wow, XYZ manages to get angry about a poll on Weibo, on this blog. I guess wanting to do something because its 社会地位 is 高 has nothing to do with wanting to have a better position than others?


  7. Oh, and perhaps XYZ would like to point out to me when exactly the PRC’s civil service became independent of the government? For someone who has seen how even lowly offices (e.g., university admin, school inspectorates, local sexual health offices etc.) have the double party/government signs one above the other, I am very curious to hear about this.


  8. @ FOARP: No. Why would you say that? Gosh! 😛

    @ XYZ: Call me old-fashioned, but I’m still of the opinion that ‘君子喻於義,小人喻於利’. And yes, civil service jobs are jobs, and as a matter of course you can’t attract good people to the position without offering at least some job security and some 待遇, but I don’t think that invalidates the broader point that generally we want people in the civil service who have at least some interest in the pursuit of justice.


  9. @ XYZ: You’re right, I was skimming quickly and misread that as 对待 rather than 待遇. Do you think it actually affects the point I was making, or were you just looking for an excuse to be pedantic?

    Also, 公务员(Civil Servants) are entry-level positions, they are not necessarily government officials

    Mmm hmm. And who do the civil servants work for, again? Yup.

    Also, I wonder what you’re implying with your emphasis of “real”…..that I don’t have a real job, or a family? I am married with a wife to support, and I work a full-time job that’s just as “real” as any civil service job in China…in fact, moreso, given that on a daily basis I actually do things rather than just sit around the office bullshitting and waiting for the next two-hour meal break.

    It baffles me that people continue to assume I don’t have a “real job” because I write a blog in my free time. It’s even more baffling given that my real job is VERY PUBLIC. So, FYI, my “real job” is writing and editing for Penn Olson. Yes, this is a full time job. Yes, I receive a salary even though it’s “just a blog”. How much, you ask? None of your fucking business. But it’s probably more than you’re imagining.

    Anyway, allow me to remind you, too, that this isn’t Hidden Harmonies. Personal attacks are not allowed here, and if you start making allegations or accusations about someone’s background or personal life, best believe I will ban you quick, because that bugs the hell out of me, especially when it comes from cowards who don’t even have the guts to attach their real name to the comments they’re making.


  10. @ MF Cooper, yeah, I was just speaking generally; in the case of this poll there’s not necessarily any naggy indication, and certainly there are people who just go into the civil service because their parents think it’s good and they don’t really have any better ideas.


  11. There is a cultural template in China (and its neighbors who copied the imperial exam system to varying degrees) that predates CCP rule and those modern perks FOARP alluded to that makes being an official a popular aspiration.


  12. @M F Cooper

    but I don’t think that invalidates the broader point that generally we want people in the civil service who have at least some interest in the pursuit of justice.

    Where did the poll say that those 43% don’t “have at least some interest in the pursuit of justice.”? I don’t see “pursuit of justice” in the list. Are pursuit of job security and pursuit of justice mutually exclusive?


    Unless one is hungry, I guess. One needs to feed himself before he can serve society, don’t you agree? So how does seeking a job in the government make one a 小人?


  13. @FOARP. What are these local local sexual health offices???? No, Im not joking. Curious. One child policing stuff. STD clinics. Family planning. Sex therapists.


  14. C Custer,

    Anyway, allow me to remind you, too, that this isn’t Hidden Harmonies. Personal attacks are not allowed here, and if you start making allegations or accusations about someone’s background or personal life, best believe I will ban you quick, because that bugs the hell out of me, especially when it comes from cowards who don’t even have the guts to attach their real name to the comments they’re making.

    There’s a good one. Let me know if FOARP, Slim, KT and all the other trolls stop talking about me.


  15. @MFC – Just to make a quick point, though, the job of the civil service in general is not justice, it is efficient management and execution of policy. Justice per se is the job of the legislative and judicial branches of a government, not so much the executive.


  16. @KT – The English title of my local one in Nanjing was “Eugenics centre” although I forget what the Chinese name was, and I’m pretty sure the English was just a bad translation. Someone I know was taken there during the marriage license application process to watch a video telling him how to get his end away.


  17. This “survey” is what it is, and shouldn’t be taken as being reflective of anything more than that. So it’s worth maybe a little chuckle. But once again, we can count on the Pug to take a little chuckle and make it into a full-on LOL. Maybe the “disclaimer” line and entire disclaimer paragraph had to be in fluorescent pink in order to catch the attention of those with limited reading and observation skills.

    Rather than just looking at reasons why people might apply to the civil service, I’d be interested to see the rates of success of the various cohorts in getting themselves hired. If the plurality are hired from the cohort who wants better status, that perhaps is less encouraging. But if the successful applicants are primarily among those who apply out of actual interest, or out of a desire to better themselves, that might bode well.


  18. Hidden Harmonies isn’t known for nastiness, as far as I can see. Any HH insults are to the intelligence of any reader who isn’t part of the weird clueless cult they have going on in that Truman Show-esque bubble of unreality they have built.


  19. Hi Charles,

    This is unrelated to the post (sorry). I wanted to ask if you can recommend some non-fiction books on China, whether it’s journalism, on foreign policy, cultural criticism or art criticism–really, anything worth reading. Thanks a lot. I love what you’re doing with this site, and you always have a reader in me.


  20. @ xc: Sure! You’ve probably heard this from everyone, but Peter Hessler’s China books, particularly River Town and Country Driving, are worth reading. So are his pieces in the New Yorker, and Evan Osnos’s as well — those aren’t books but they’re generally pretty long.

    Factory Girls is another favorite of mine, as is The Party. One slightly less well known one, if you’re interested in Tibet, is The Struggle for Modern Tibet, which I’ve always found to be one of the few relatively balanced reads on Tibet (honest about the terrible aspects of Tibetan society pre-communism but also critical of the CCP’s actions there). I haven’t read it in a couple years though, so I might feel differently about it now.

    But honestly, I’m very behind on China books at the moment, and in some ways I’d almost recommend reading some Chinese fiction as as good a way to understand China as Western nonfiction (see, for example, my review of Ru Yan@sars.come (yeah, it’s a terrible title, but a great book)).


  21. Thanks so much! I’m coming to China very soon, and felt completely out of the loop. If you have more recommendations, even if they’re books from school, I’d love to know (slash, I’d read the shit outta future book reviews). Again, I really appreciate everything that you and your writers do on this site. Have a great day.


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