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Xinhua Insight: Contracts fail to break China's "iron rice bowl"

English.news.cn   2014-05-05 22:43:45

by Xinhua writers Cheng Lu and Hu Tao

BEIJING, May 5 (Xinhua) -- In the past six months, eastern China's Zhejiang Province has recruited contract-based government officers in an attempt to reform the civil servant system amid China's anti-corruption campaign.

But the move has led to controversy, as people worry the reform in civil servant employment in Yiwu City is reform in name only.

According to Yiwu City's website, five candidates are currently being recruited to fill local government positions, including electronic business analyst, traffic control system coordinator and logistics information manager.

The contract-based jobs pay between 300,000 yuan (about 48,780 U.S. dollars) and 600,000 yuan per year, nearly three to six times the annual income of the city's common civil servants.

CONTRACTS BRING CONTROVERSY

Contract-based civil servant employment has become controversial due to its higher pay and ineffective dismissal system.

Shenzhen initiated a similar scheme on a larger scale in 2010. Among more than 3,200 civil servants hired on three-year labor contracts, none of them were dismissed from their jobs after their contracts expired.

Under Chinese labor laws, once a worker has signed two labor contracts with the same employer in a row, the employee and employer can sign, through negotiations, a work contract with no fixed terms. This stipulation also applies to local civil servants.

"China has taken a market-oriented employment mechanism because it needs more professional talents to join the civil service. But the supporting performance evaluation system still lags behind, which poses challenges to management," said Wang Jinjun, associate professor with the Party School of Zhejiang Provincial Party Committee.

Civil servant systems based on labor contracts are prevalent in developed countries and regions, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore.

According to the Civil Servant Law, which took effect in 2006, China has allowed local governments to recruit contract-based civil servants with professional and technological expertise.

"This landmark move sends a signal that civil servants will no longer be a privileged group and might lose jobs as people in any other occupation do," Wang said.

Following Shenzhen, other places in China, including Shanghai Municipality, Fujian and Henan provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region started similar schemes to transfer government officers in service from de facto life-long employment to limited employment based on labor contracts.

But the reality has turned out to be a bit different.

China has more than seven million civil servants. Yet statistics released by the State Administration of Civil Service in 2011 showed that the country only terminated about 4,000 public servants over the past five years.

BREAKING THE IRON RICE BOWL

"We need more well-educated and experienced personnel, but the traditional civil service examination fails to bridge the shortage of professional talent in e-commerce, port management and logistics," said Chen Lingling, an official from Yiwu's organization department.

In China, only applicants younger than 35 years old can apply for the highly competitive annual civil servant exam. Once employed, they are guaranteed job security until retirement, and their pensions are usually higher than those of private sectors.

This stable career with its social status and welfare benefits has been called the "iron rice bowl," and it has been a popular career among young Chinese.

However, its popularity has waned amid China's crackdown on graft as part of the country's austerity drive.

China has witnessed a sharp decline in confirmed registrations of test-takers for the civil service examination this year.

Recruitment programs are ongoing in 21 provincial regions. There are 101,800 vacancies, a 13.2 percent year-on-year decrease. The number of qualified applicants has reached 2.56 million for this year, down 12.3 percent from 2013.

But becoming a government officer in China is still not easy. Keeping a job has become more difficult under the anti-corruption campaign, since behavior of public servants is under tight supervision by the government as well as the public.

China has adopted various measures to reform its civil servant system. Contract-based civil service could promote the building of a clean, effective and professional government and provide a new channel for talented people to make contributions.

"But the performance evaluation process should be more transparent, open and fair," said Xu Fagen, public administration professor with Zhejiang University.

He said one way is to improve the recruitment and dismissal mechanism. "Whether a government officer stays or leaves should depend on standard performance appraisal rather than [the decisions of] any high-level individuals."

(Zhang Yao, Duan Jingjing and Zhang Ran from Zhejiang contributed to the reporting)

Editor: Yamei Wang
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