University students looking for jobs at a fair in Hangzhou, China. According to CNBC analysis of state media reports, 7.7 million people took the civil service exam in the 2023 application round, vying for more than 200,000 government jobs at the national and provincial level.
Qilai Shen | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

A record number of people in China took the civil service exam this year, as unemployment among young people soared.

According to CNBC analysis of state media reports, 7.7 million people took the civil service exam in the 2023 application round, vying for more than 200,000 government jobs at the national and provincial level.

Government jobs are typically regarded as stable and prestigious in China. GDP growth has slowed from its rapid pace of the past decades.

The interest in government jobs comes as Xi Jinping last week cemented his position as China’s leader for an unprecedented third term.

Xi sees unity under the ruling Chinese Communist Party as essential for building up the country. That’s meant the party has and is set to increase its presence in the economy, including among businesses that are not state-owned.

Studying “Xi thought” is a growing requirement for schools in China.

For millions of people who want a government job, they must take China’s civil service exam — which starts with questions on Xi’s report to the party’s congress and Xi thought in a multiple-choice section.

Here’s a sample question, from Gongkaotong, which sells test preparation questions for the civil service exam:

Xi Jinping’s thought on economy is an important part of Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era. Regarding Xi Jinping’s thought on economy, how many of the following statements are correct?

① Entering a new development stage is a historical orientation of China’s economic development
② Promoting high-quality development is a distinct theme of China’s economic development
③Adhering to the new concept of development is the guiding principle of China’s economic development
④ Insisting on opening to the outside world is the first driving force for China’s economic development
⑤ Vigorously developing the manufacturing industry and the real economy is the main focus of China’s economic development

A. 2 items
B. 3 items
C. 4 items
D. 5 items

The written exam consists of two parts: a 120-minute multiple-choice section on “administrative professional ability” and a 180-minute essay writing portion called “shen lun,” translated to mean “constructing and defending an argument.”

The administrative test includes questions on the Report of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and other rules and regulations. The exam also tests for language skills, data analysis, quantitative methods, “judgment and reasoning,” and “common-sense judgment.”

Preference for young civil servants

The state expanded recruiting at the national and provincial levels by around 15% to 20%, a decision “aimed at easing unemployment pressure, particularly for college graduates,” a state media report said, citing Zhu Lijia, a professor at the party’s National Academy of Governance.

About two-thirds of national-level civil servant positions during this round of testing were only open to new graduates, or those who graduated within the last two years and unable to find employment, according to state media.

Unemployment among China’s young people between the ages of 16 and 24 surged to record highs last summer amid the pandemic, although it has since tapered off slightly.

Who’s hiring?

China’s Ministry of Public Security is the biggest recruiter at a ministry level, according to a plan published by the National Civil Service Administration.

Here’s a list of some open positions:

1. China’s Ministry of Public Security: 39 positions
2. Ministry of Foreign Affairs: 38 positions
3. General Office of the Chinese Communist Party: 26 entry-level positions. The department provides security, medical care and secretary work for the top leadership of the party and government.
4. Cyberspace Administration of China: 20 positions, 12 of which will work at the Emergency Command Center of Internet Security. The regulator oversees content and has to authority to remove apps from app stores.

China’s National Civil Service Administration could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts by CNBC.

Senior leaders don’t need to test

China’s civil service exam has its roots in China’s imperial examination system dating back to the 6th century.

Under that system, scholars would take several levels of tests to earn government positions — it was considered a process that gave everyone a fair chance to move up in social hierarchy.

The country’s current exam system was adopted in 1993 and in 2005, it became mandatory for all entry-level government officials.

However, Xi and other senior leaders did not need to take the civil service exam to gain their current roles.

By law, only “non-leadership civil servants below the senior staff member level and other equivalent positions” are required to take the test, not senior leaders.

The president, vice president, chairman of the Central Military Commission and other top government positions in China are chosen through a process in which national delegates discuss and nominate one candidate for each role.

Xi gained an unprecedented third term Friday through this process.

At a provincial or lower level, heads of government may face at most one competing candidate for each role.

Secure employment

Government officials in China earn a very modest salary.

But they are typically guaranteed a job for life with high social status. Preferential treatment includes bonus pay at festivals, better medical insurance and a higher pension allotment without needing to make personal contributions.

Exact figures on pay remain a sensitive topic.

We will expand employment channels to help young people realize their personal value through hard work.
Li Qiang
Chinese premier

The latest numbers reported by state media showed civil servants earned an average of 48,608 yuan ($6,979) a year in 2012. The reports also showed Xi received 136,620 yuan a year in 2015.

For a rough comparison, the per capita salary income for urban residents was 20,590 yuan in 2022, according to official figures. Salaries vary widely in China by region and job type.

Despite longer-term forecasts of a shrinking population and workforce, the number of university graduates has climbed to record highs in the last few years in China.

“From the perspective of employment, there is certain pressure,” Premier Li Qiang said Monday in his first press conference in the role, according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese.

“We will expand employment channels to help young people realize their personal value through hard work.”

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