by Xinhua writers Yao Yuan and Ni Yuanjin
BEIJING, Oct. 25 (Xinhua) -- Cao Bin's dream job in China's officialdom befits anything but the popular image of a tea-drinking bureaucrat reading newspapers in an air-conditioned office, or dozing off at long meetings.
Instead, the postgraduate at China Foreign Affairs University has applied for a position with the China Earthquake Administration. If successful, the job will catapult him into quake-hit regions across the world, interpreting for China's rescue teams.
"The job'll be exciting -- it can take me to places other people will never have a chance to visit in their lives, and my knowledge and skills can be fully used," he said.
Cao's choice, however, is considered "weird, harsh and dangerous" by his peers. Only 24 people have applied for the same position, making it one of the least sought-after jobs in the upcoming civil service recruitment tests scheduled to open early next year.
The most desired position, in contrast, is with the statistical bureau in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, where more than 9,000 candidates vying for the opening.
The craze for government jobs remains red-hot, due to a sustained increase in the number of new graduates and traditional beliefs that government jobs are secure and full of promotion opportunities in the political hierarchy.
A record 1.5 million candidates have submitted online applications for about 20,000 government jobs in the upcoming tests, according to State Civil Servants Administration. Applications concluded Wednesday.
Among the most coveted positions are with central government agencies in Beijing, and customs and taxation offices in provincial and local governments.
Maggie Li, a doctoral student at Peking University who prefers to use her English name, believes her future lies in a government job.
Li, who has spent much time and money preparing for the civil service recuitment exams, said her dream is to secure a "stable, well-paid, and honorable" job.
"When I return home, I wish to proudly tell my family and friends that I'm a government employee in Beijing," she said.
Li dismissed other jobs as "inferior".
"Foreign companies are not doing well due to the global economic downturn; the jobs they offer are also tiring and unstable," she said.
Government employment has been popular among Chinese college graduates, who stick to traditional beliefs that government jobs are "iron rice bowls," meaning they have secure pay and welfare and will never have to worry about losing their jobs, even during economic downturns.
The fervor is ever stronger in China these days. Each summer, a growing number of new college graduates flood into the job market as a result of the sustained expansion in college enrollment, only to find slimmer chances due to the lackluster global economy.
This year, a record 6.8 million students graduated from China's universities. A recent survey by a popular social networking website renren.com said about 24 percent of college graduates wish to enter government, though others put the ratio much higher.
But experts said the craze for public "iron rice bowls" was not a sign of a healthy society.
"It suggests a lack of public confidence in the private sector, where jobs are considered insecure and less respectable," said Liu Yuebo, a school official who handles graduation issues at Nankai University in Tianjin.
Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Beijing's China Renming University, said the "brain drain" of government employees in the 1980s had now been reversed. "In those years, many officials were eager to become businesspeople. But today, almost everyone wishes to work for the government."
Zhou continued, "Most applicants for government jobs want to become bureaucrats and enjoy the esteem and power. Few are thinking about serving the country and people. This is a very bad trend."
To cope with the inflows of job seekers, the difficulty of the national test has been raised significantly over the years, while more positions require candidates to have work experience in rural, remote and impoverished regions.
Another trend that baffles sociologists is that many applicants, lacking a clear career plan, wish to join the civil service to seek comfort rather than personal development.
Many have vague ideas of government jobs and just followed the conventional wisdom that relates civil service to stability, coziness and fat pay.
"Many of my friends have applied for the taxation bureau simply because the job sounds well-paid, but few people know what it's really about," said Zhang Shiqi, who has applied for a post in the taxation bureau in the city of Wenzhou.
Zhang blames the problem on the opaqueness of China's civil service, which usually offers little job description and few intern opportunities.
Many newly recruited government employees feel disappointed after mysteries surrounding their jobs are unraveled, and day-to-day work soon proves boring and poorly paid.
"I used to dream of the cozy life in the government, drinking tea and reading newspapers all day long. But now I've realized such a life only exists in my dreams," said Fang Zhong, who works in a public security bureau in Fuzhou, capital of east China's Fujian Province.
Fang, 24, described his daily work as backbreaking; extra hours every day, constant midnight calls and, worst of all, no time to date a girl.
Posted to a police station, Fang patrols the streets, handles criminal cases and answers emergency calls -- tasks that had little to do with his IT major in college.
Fang is now considering changing jobs, but still prefers to stay on the government payroll rather than taking up an "unstable" job in the private sector.
"I may take the exam again next year. Maybe jobs in taxation and customs bureaus will be more promising," he said. Enditem
(Chen Ximeng has contributed to the writing of the story)