China :Top Civil Service Posts Open To Overseas University Graduates

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As record numbers of graduates sit China’s fiercely competitive civil service examinations on 26 November, hoping for secure government jobs amid high youth unemployment rates, the government is widening its special recruitment system for some civil service posts to include Chinese citizens who have graduated from top overseas universities.

Some 3.03 million candidates will sit the exams nationwide in major cities for almost 39,600 entry-level positions in central government and Communist Party agencies in 2024, according to the National Civil Service Administration.

More than 1.95 million applied in the previous recruitment round in January this year, with a success rate of just one in 41 candidates securing a government job.

Some 26,000 vacancies are specially set aside for university and college students due to graduate in 2024, in order to promote employment of new graduates.

Amid the scramble for jobs, some regions have announced the special route into government service for overseas degree holders. Graduates from top overseas universities can bypass the provincial level civil service examinations if they agree to spend two to three years in rural or disadvantaged areas first.

The direct recruitment schemes of ‘select and assigned graduates’, run by both the central government and provincial governments, has been a way in the past to recruit graduates from China’s top universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai, bypassing the civil service exam.

Applicants spend two to three years in grassroots positions and hope to be assigned a higher-level position afterwards.

Sichuan Province in Southwest China recently announced plans to hire new graduates who have studied abroad. Other provinces accepting overseas returnees include Guangdong, Shandong, Henan, Hebei, Shanxi, Yunnan as well as Chongqing.

There are some additional conditions. For instance, those from overseas must be a member of the Communist Party of China, hold a leadership role in student associations or have been awarded national level scholarships.

Backdoor system

But extending this ‘backdoor’ system to graduates of overseas universities has caused some angry comments on Chinese social media, which sees provincial governments favouring foreign returned Chinese over the country’s own graduates.

“The Chinese government wants better talent – like from the [United States] Ivy League and other top universities – they have a list of universities. The idea is to improve the expertise within the system,” explained Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, who has written a book on civil service pay and conditions in China.

Wu told University World News: “In the past they sent mid-career officials abroad for better training – sending them to the London School of Economics, or to the School of Public Policy in Singapore where I am based.

“But now they are thinking they can get fresh graduates from overseas with the right expertise. When these graduates rise up within the civil service system it will be good for China. They still send civil servants abroad for training but the scale is not as large as before.”

Parents are also keen on their children returning to China to prestigious and secure civil service jobs, he said.

At the same time, government agencies have become more selective, setting ever higher educational requirements, data from the Huatu Education group found.

The number of jobs that now require a masters degree or even a doctorate has soared. This year, more than 2,600 civil service positions were only open to those with a postgraduate degree, up from 891 in 2019.

Anger at ‘privileged’ bypassing exams

Online anger has focused on privileged graduates of foreign universities being able to bypass the exams, while poorer students do not stand a chance, as they cannot afford the exam cramming fees and cannot afford to go abroad.

“Bluntly, the rich use money to pave the way for their offspring so that they can go to prestigious universities abroad. If they sit the exam, such students would almost never pass. But after obtaining an overseas qualification, they can enter the civil service as a selected student,” wrote one netizen on Chinese social media.

Another wrote: “Returnees may appear in various [government] units. Increasing such channels makes some netizens doubt the fairness of the system.”

Today’s graduates often spend months cramming for the civil service exam. Only a very high score will be enough to secure an interview. Tutoring companies have emerged with a sole focus of coaching graduates for the exam.

“China’s civil service examination is very unique and is very difficult. Not every student can pass it,” Wu said, referring to Chinese friends in Singapore returning home to prepare months ahead for the exams

Not having to sit the exam is seen as a huge advantage of the special route.

Shanghai has expanded eligibility for the special selection route to include 73 top ranked universities outside mainland China, including two universities in Hong Kong. Beijing municipality will accept applications from graduates of top 100 universities globally, based on the Shanghai 2023 World Universities Rankings.

When Shanghai announced its 2023 civil service admission list in May it revealed that 30 recruits were graduates of overseas universities – 90% of them from top 100 universities, with United Kingdom universities the most represented, with 11 graduates.

Half the total ‘foreign graduate’ intake for Shanghai had graduated from Hong Kong, mainly the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University of Hong Kong, according to last year’s Shanghai list.

An academic in Hong Kong told University World News that local authorities are keen to diversify the types of applicants to the civil services, with those from abroad having a “broader perspective”, better communication skills and being able to bring “advanced ideas” back to China. Those with finance, economics, technology and computing degrees were the most sought-after returnees.

But others note that the civil service is also applying more professional and rigorous standards, rather than putting ideological training above all else. Business and management skills are now seen as more important.

In a briefing note last month the British Council commented that “the change in policy may raise the appeal of degrees from leading foreign institutions as it offers Chinese students studying [for] a degree abroad a tangible pathway to prestigious government positions in their home country”.

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