This July, a Chinese state media outlet reported on punishments meted out to two civil servants in China’s southwestern Yunnan province. Their infraction? Not corruption, nepotism, nor poor performance. Rather, they had both refused promotions, believing it better to suffer the consequences of disobeying their superiors’ wishes than give up the relative comforts of city life for a higher-ranking position in the countryside.
In the official write-up of the incident, the two individuals — both women and members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) — were castigated for, in party parlance, “forgetting their original intention” and putting their “small families” at home ahead of their “big family,” or the collective good. It went on to note that both women now recognized their supposed errors.
The CPC has always expected unblinking loyalty, discipline, and obedience to party diktats from its rank and file. Every member is expected to unconditionally accept and complete any mission the CPC assigns them. Expressing individual preferences or any expectation of personalized treatment is strictly prohibited. As the country’s ruling party, the CPC is in a position to extend these expectations not just to cadres, but to non-party member officials as well.
Even as it demands strict obedience, however, the CPC also seeks to fill its ranks and the civil service with highly qualified and talented cadres and officials. In today’s China, this generally means recruiting young people with strong academic credentials. Yet as the private sector has grown, the wealth gap between cities and the countryside has widened, and people’s material expectations and personal needs have diversified, the CPC has found it difficult to enforce the ironclad discipline it expects of its members while also attracting and retaining the capable individuals it desires.
Under Mao, jobs within party and government departments, public institutions, and state-owned enterprises were highly prized in part because they offered a wide range of perks not otherwise available to the public, including free or inexpensive superior-quality housing, health care, and educational resources. But as the country’s “reform and opening-up” unfolded in the late 1970s, the government began to rethink this system, which was not only expensive, but also vulnerable to criticism for fostering a sense of bureaucratic privilege.
Beginning in the late ’90s, CPC organs and government departments tried cutting down on the number of perks enjoyed by bureaucrats and cadres. Free housing was eliminated, primary and secondary schools that specifically recruited the children of civil servants opened to the public, and medical reimbursement rules tightened.
More recently, however, a sharp rise in the cost of urban housing, the growing difficulty of securing spots in high-quality schools, and persistent food safety issues have given highly qualified candidates pause and have forced the party to temporarily halt cadre welfare cuts. In short, the CPC has realized that, in order to ensure the continuing attractiveness of civil service work, it needs to provide competitive welfare benefits.
In order to avoid public criticism, this has been carried out discreetly. For example, instead of giving civil servants a large raise to compensate for the increased cost of living, the party often grants housing stipends that completely cover or even exceed an individual’s monthly housing payments.
In addition, a certain number of public kindergartens as well as primary and middle schools have been set up to recruit or give preference to the children of civil servants — although this fact is not usually publicly advertised. And civil servants are given free or nearly free meals three times a day at restaurants and canteens run by the government.
In short, the CPC has sought to provide preferential welfare for its members and civil servants to alleviate some of its recruitment problems. But adapting itself to the new urban lifestyles and preferences of officials poses a thornier challenge.
Almost every government HR professional I’ve spoken with stressed how times have changed. “The times are different, and the young (civil servants) think differently now,” said one. “Life is much richer now, and people no longer center their lives around work," said another.
This is particularly true of civil servants with families. In the words of a traditional saying: “Official so-and-so is a person, too.” Both male and female officials want to be able to spend more time with family members, live close to their children’s schools, and have a certain amount of free time. Cities, with their better housing, schools, and recreational opportunities, are naturally considered plum postings. But when these individualized desires come into contact with the party’s insistence on rigid discipline, conflicts tend to break out.
In recent years, rural transfers have become a particular flashpoint, as county-level civil servants balk at being sent to live and work in tiny towns or villages. Five years ago, when I conducted research in southeast China, I found that more than half the officials in one rural town I visited lived 40 kilometers away in a nearby urban center. Rather than live in the countryside full time, they preferred to make a two-hour round trip commute every day. This August, when I revisited the town, I found that the proportion of the town’s civil servants who lived in the city had risen to 80%. Many carpooled to avoid driving fatigue.
In interviews, the town’s civil servants generally said the commute was worth it because they and their families were fond of urban life and were unwilling to move to rural areas — living apart was out of the question. Even if offered opportunities for advancement or more subsidies, most said their interest in working in remote areas was very limited.
“Better to live in the city,” one official told me. “Everything’s a bit more convenient. If it’s a pain to commute every day, then it’s a pain.”
This reluctance has put pressure on those tasked with moving officials around and filling posts. “It’s too difficult! It’s too hard! Now the situation is different from before,” one personnel manager told me. “Everyone has a family to take care of. So we are first of all looking for single (civil servants).”
Even this solution isn’t permanent, however. Although unmarried civil servants are usually young and inexperienced enough not to risk their bosses’ ire by turning down an assignment, after a few years, as they form families and establish themselves professionally, they often buy homes in urban areas and work to pull off a transfer. The most common method is to find a newly minted official and get them to fill the vacancy, but even if this fails, most move to the city anyway and simply resign themselves to a long commute.
The party has gradually come to recognize the importance of family, relatives, and friends, and it no longer praises the ideals of sacrifice, putting work first, and forgetting about home and property above all else. Instead, it says it’s advocating a healthier and more modern way of working, including cutting down on pro forma meetings and overtime.
But it still expects members to do what they’re told. The CPC’s obsession with discipline and its strict organizational culture won’t disappear overnight. The party has proven itself adaptable in the past; if it wants to balance the demands of an urbanizing bureaucracy and a still-highly rural nation, it may have to do so again.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A woman waves a Chinese flag in Guifangqiao Village, Zhejiang province, Sept. 23, 2019. IC)