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    To Lure Talent, China’s Civil Service Is Betting on Contract Hires

    As competition for traditional civil service positions intensifies, China is increasingly turning to contract-based roles to meet new governance needs. Unlike traditional positions, these contracts offer flexibility and competitive salaries, bypassing the rigorous civil service exams.

    For millions of qualified candidates vying for government jobs in China, the odds of passing the national civil servant exam are akin to winning the lottery. In the 2024 recruitment season, competition peaked for a single vacancy in the Ningxia Survey Corps of the National Bureau of Statistics, where the odds soared to 3,572:1.

    Often referred to as the “iron rice bowl” because they offer steady incomes, elevated social status, and job security, careers in the civil service or at state-owned enterprises continue to see intensifying competition each season.

    But in recent years, an alternative route has slowly gained traction: contract-based civil service positions.

    Part of a decades-long reform of the country’s civil servant system, these specialized roles bypass the grueling national exam and aim to attract professionals with niche expertise by offering competitive salaries — sometimes even three times higher — and greater flexibility.

    In the past few months alone, at least 20 cities across five provinces and regions have announced new recruitment drives for contract-based civil servants.

    In the eastern Jiangxi province alone, at least 10 cities announced recruitment drives between May 15 and May 17, offering three-year employment contracts with annual salaries ranging from 300,000 to 500,000 yuan ($41,300-$68,800) before taxes for select positions.

    While exact numbers of contract-based civil servant hires are unavailable, Ma Liang, a professor of Public Administration at Renmin University in Beijing, underscores the acute need for specialized expertise in government projects, something current civil servants lack.

    “Contract-based civil servants are an ideal choice for agencies to introduce ‘external brains,’ as they can be selected based on demand,” says Ma.

    Though Ma believes the traditional national civil servant examination will remain the backbone of the recruitment process, the increasing specialization of government work means that the proportion of contract-based civil servants is expected to grow.

    But with contract positions accounting for only a fraction of the government workforce, recent recruitment drives and concerns over the salaries and temporary nature of these roles have sparked intense debate.

    New path

    In 2014, at the age of 32, Xiang Qingyi brought his master’s degree in transportation planning and seven years of field experience to the government sector, joining as part of the second batch of contract-based civil servants in the eastern city of Yiwu, Zhejiang province.

    “The high annual salary is very attractive to me, but more importantly, the job position matches my qualifications and interests,” Xiang, who has served as the senior director of intelligent traffic dispatch at the Yiwu Municipal Public Security Bureau, told domestic media.

    In 2018, his after-tax annual salary was 300,000 yuan ($41,300) — about three times the annual income of local grassroots civil servants.

    After taking on the task of transportation planning and congestion relief, Xiang has helped the local government establish a systematic traffic management concept.

    Elsewhere in Zhejiang, such candidates are often recruited in local economic and technological development zones and high-tech industrial parks, covering specialized fields from artificial intelligence to automotive industries.

    The requirements generally stipulate that applicants must be under 40, with a relaxation to 45 for those with doctoral degrees. Full-time master’s degrees or higher are required for most positions, with at least five years of relevant work or leadership experience.

    First piloted in the 1970s, the formal legal definition for contract-based civil servants came with the implementation of the Civil Servant Law in 2006, allowing agencies to adopt contract-based systems for professional and auxiliary positions as needed.

    In 2007, Shenzhen and Shanghai, as hubs of economic development, became the first cities to pilot the recruitment of contract-based civil servants. By 2015, over 6,000 civil servants in Shenzhen were contract-based, accounting for 13.1% of the total.

    In the subsequent years, the Chinese government refined the principles and requirements for this new type of civil servant, issuing relevant trial management regulations in 2017.

    “Introducing market mechanisms can make the (government) recruitment process more flexible and open, and in fact, it is conducive to optimizing costs and improving efficiency in public human resource management,” says Jia Yimeng, an associate professor in political science from Nankai University in the northern city of Tianjin.

    Unlike traditional civil servants who must pass national or provincial examinations, contract-based civil servants are selected through written tests, interviews, and other methods tailored to the specific needs of each position.

    These roles often require strong professional expertise and are considered to have “low substitutability.” Consequently, selected public employees frequently receive significantly higher salaries than their traditionally appointed counterparts.

    The two recruitment methods cater to different candidates with distinct criteria. While young graduates can sit for the national civil servant exams, they may find it challenging to qualify for contract-based positions.

    “The contract-based system is more challenging and requires higher professional skills, requiring relevant work experience and specialized expertise,” says Jia, adding that the high-skilled and experienced talents urgently needed to fill these positions often cannot be selected through traditional recruitment methods or trained internally in the short term.

    Tenure vs. talent

    Despite the growing presence of contract-based civil servants, they remain a small fraction of the government workforce. Renmin University’s Ma Liang estimates that they may constitute only about one in every 1,000 civil servants across the country.

    Due to their limited numbers, public awareness of contract-based civil servants is low. Recent open recruitment drives over past months have sparked heated debates on social media: Many question the high salaries offered, while others doubt whether these “temporary jobs” can attract and retain high-skilled talent.

    The skepticism is underscored by challenges in the recruitment process itself. For instance, in a recent drive, the Ningxia government aimed to hire 11 contract-based civil servants, but only two positions were filled — the rest were canceled because too few applicants met the stringent qualifications required.

    Ma suggests that these recruitment issues stem from a mismatch between the available positions and the qualified candidates, exacerbated by poor communication between government agencies and job seekers.

    “The number of professionals who truly meet the standards of contract-based civil servants is very limited, and they are highly sought after by the government and the market,” he explains.

    To compete effectively with private companies for high-skilled talent, Ma emphasizes the importance of increasing public education about contract-based recruitment. He suggests providing professionals with ample opportunities to utilize their skills and establishing a robust system of support for talent management, including clear criteria for contract renewal and promotion.

    Under the 2017 policy, contract-based civil servant agreements, typically ranging from one to five years, can be renewed based on work needs, performance assessments, and the preferences of the civil servant. Exceptional employees may also be eligible for conversion to commissioned civil servants, subject to approval from the authorities.

    Contract renewals are common among the new type of civil servants, though some experts criticize the opaque assessment mechanisms and call for greater transparency.

    Zhuang Deshui, deputy director of the Public Policy Research Center at Peking University, told China Newsweek that there are no clear regulations specifying the criteria necessary for contract-based civil servants to become commissioned civil servants, complicating their ability to change status within the system.

    The potential drop in annual salary also discourages some contract-based civil servants from seeking conversion to regular status. Xiang explained, “If I switch to a company, I’ll have to renegotiate my salary, but if I become a commissioned civil servant, my salary might be directly halved, which is hard to accept.”

    Xiang’s five-year contract was renewed in 2019, increasing his after-tax annual salary from 300,000 to 500,000 yuan. He told domestic media that he prefers to continue renewing his current contract in the future.

    But both Jia and Ma point out that the pay for contract-based civil servants is not directly comparable to traditional salaries due to the fundamentally different structures.

    “Lifetime tenure or contract-based system — it’s not a binary choice between these two options,” says Ma. “Instead, they can be comprehensively used and integrated, and the civil service system in the future will also become increasingly mixed.”

    Additional reporting: Li Dongxu; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: VCG)