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2018-09-28 10:38:54

On Thursday, millions of Chinese people learned that a man named Zhang Xiaoping had resigned from his workplace.

A little-known former research fellow at a state-owned liquid rocket engine research and development organization, Zhang’s name might only have come up in obscure academic circles on the internet, but this week it became one of the most-searched topics on microblogging platform Weibo. The hashtag “researcher Zhang Xiaoping resigned” had attracted over 29 million views by Friday afternoon.

Zhang’s sudden internet fame can be traced to a two-page document concerning his resignation that was leaked from his former employer, Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, an organization in northwestern Shaanxi province whose engines put China’s first artificial satellite into orbit. According to the document — posted to Q&A platform Zhihu by an unidentified user on Saturday — Zhang was the irreplaceable “heart and soul” behind the design and development of several rocket engines, two of which are slated to propel China’s manned lunar project forward.

“We don’t want to accept — and can’t accept — that this important national strategic project will be affected by one individual’s resignation,” concluded the document, which was picked up by an influential public account on social app WeChat on Wednesday evening. In the WeChat article, the author satirically described the documents as an appeal by Zhang’s former bosses to force their prodigal employee’s return after realizing his inestimable value to the company too late. Alleging that Zhang could earn ten times his previous salary if he were to join a private space launch company, the author went on to criticize the unfair reward system at most state-owned enterprises (SOEs) for stymieing the growth of academic and intellectual talent.

In a statement released Thursday evening, the Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute said Zhang had resigned in March in breach of his contract, and despite the institute’s efforts to retain him. Because Zhang did not respond to a request that he honor his contract and work in a declassified role for two months before leaving, the institution filed an arbitration case against him. “In an effort to persuade Zhang to come back for the debriefing process, the arbitration document used improper expressions that exaggerated his role and contributions,” read the statement.

The WeChat article was deleted by the account that posted it on Thursday afternoon after netizens pointed out several factual errors, including Zhang’s previous annual salary and the description of his former job title.

Despite its twists and turns, Zhang’s story has struck a chord with many Chinese netizens. They see the institute’s document as absurd and feel sympathetic toward Zhang, who, in their minds, resigned for being undervalued by the SOE.

“It’s common for state-owned research institutes to be official-oriented,” a Beijing-based senior technician who has worked in the power industry for over 15 years told Sixth Tone. He requested anonymity because he is currently employed by an SOE. “By official-oriented, I mean that whoever holds the power to allocate resources is the decision-maker,” he said. “But because technicians only have esoteric skills, the credit for the research usually goes to administrative staff,” he continued. “Scientific and technical staff are only pawns used to achieve an end goal.”

SOEs — sometimes called “iron rice bowls” for offering stable employment and a wide range of benefits — were once coveted dream jobs. However, with the marketization of the Chinese economy beginning in the 1980s, the shortcomings of SOEs — including their bureaucratic inefficiency and non-merit-based wage systems — were magnified.

According to business news outlet Jiemian, China’s state-owned aerospace institutions have experienced a brain drain, as more and more elite employees flock to private companies where they can earn higher salaries. In May, the State Council announced reforms to the SOE wage system in an effort to better-incentivize star employees.

“The so-called stability now means little more than that you can make ends meet. You can’t get a high salary unless you’re in a mid-level position — but that could take five to 10 years,” a former employee at a state-owned power plant in Hebei told Sixth Tone. She, too, requested anonymity. After working at the plant for 12 years, she finally left in 2012. “To get a promotion within the SOE system, sometimes you have to make compromises when dealing with people,” she said, referring to those with the power to make decisions.

Zhu Fuqiang, an associate professor of economics at Sun Yat-sen University’s Lingnan College, told Sixth Tone that many SOEs embody a hierarchical — and often opaque — “family-style” management structure. “Administrators tend to make [human resources] decisions based on seniority and personal relationships,” he said, rather than transparent assessments that reflect merit and work ethic.

In an interview with Beijing Youth Daily on Thursday, Liu Zhirang, the head of the organization the oversees the Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, said that although Zhang’s resignation would not affect the progress of any specific projects, the institute would take advantage of this case to reflect on how better to retain talent in the future.

Zhang — the man at the center of this story — has turned down several interview requests from media.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A commuter on an escalator passes by portraits of model workers from state-owned companies at a subway station in Beijing, Feb. 8, 2017. VCG)