China isn’t helping itself by employing so many top graduates in state jobsby Helen Gao / August 21, 2013 / Leave a comment
I was ambling down a Beijing alleyway, where the traditional houses lining the road have been converted into posh cafes, when a voice called out my name. I turned: a pair of astonished eyes was gazing at me from under immaculately trimmed eyebrows. “I can’t believe it’s you! Do you remember me?”
Slowly, the familiar face of a girl with a ponytail and a friendly smile emerged from my memory. “Of course! We were together in the student council in high school, right?” I beamed. “How have you been?”
“I’m doing well. I’m working for a guoqi.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
She uttered a little laugh. “It’s guoqi, so, you know.” She shrugged. “We should catch up!” she said, whipping out an iPhone to take down my number.
Guoqi is shorthand for guoyou qiye. It means “state-owned enterprise” and has had a large presence in my personal life since I returned to China last August, after studying in America. My former high school classmates, now three years out of college, are almost all employees at guoqi. The business cards they pass around carry names grand and peculiar: China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China National Metals & Minerals Import & Export Corporation.
This year, a record 7m college graduates poured into China’s already saturated job market. A recent survey showed that by the end of April only 28 per cent of college graduates in Beijing, and 29 per cent in Shanghai, had found jobs. The glut alarmed the nation’s top leaders, prompting President Xi Jinping to urge college graduates “not to shy away from working at the grassroots level.” The leadership’s painstaking efforts to manage jobseekers’ expectation illustrates its awareness of the destabilising potential that a disaffected young workforce can pose on society, especially now that the country’s booming economic engine is starting to slow. While the frustration of job searching clearly weighs on China’s giant army of college graduates, it also heightens their sensitivity to job security. Positions inside the government, the state enterprises and state banks, which offer steady incomes and generous benefits, have increased dramatically in their appeal: according to a survey conducted by Tsinghua University in 2010, over 60 per cent of college graduates rank such jobs as their top choice.
This preference has manifested itself in the career choices of my friends, most of whom went on to attend prestigious universities in China or master’s programmes abroad. But their glowing CVs, rather than bestowing them with a risk-encouraging optimism, seem to convince them of the merits of a stable and secure path. Xu Mingyu, a high school friend of mine who studied journalism at Peking University, said her dream job would be a public relations position working with private businesses. “But I chose Bank of China,” she told me, with a vague smile. “Because nobody else at the PR firms I looked at went to Peking University.”
Chinese education, which rewards students’ ability to conform to, rather than challenge, the system, may largely account for the situation. So does the ailing job market, in which a livable salary, matched with comprehensive social security benefits, increasingly seems like a luxury. Perhaps more important than the causes of the phenomenon, however, are its implications: as China’s best and brightest flock to guoqi, it deprives the country of the dynamic energy needed to rejuvenate its economy. The government is justified in treating the high unemployment rate as its main concern, given its potential for social disruption. In the long run, however, in order to realise its goal of boosting domestic innovation and restructuring the economy, the state will have to find ways to cultivate ambition among the country’s top talent, while unleashing their creative energy.
In 2011, when the news of Steve Jobs’s death ricocheted across western media, it also shook China, where millions of the newly middle class have embraced Apple products. Amid a flood of eulogies to the iconic inventor, one took a more meditative tone. “At this moment in China,” it said, “many Steve Jobs are probably taking the civil service exam.”