Friday, September 13, 2013

“Go West, Young Man.” No Thanks.

The road more widely traveled

“Safe and secure” are not the adjectives that readily spring to mind when one thinks about jobs that promising young Chinese graduates might desire once they leave university and launch themselves into the country’s go-go economy. However, according to American Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps, that’s what a disheartening number of young Chinese are looking for as they clamor in increasing numbers after government-related civil servant jobs. As reported in this SCMP article, Mr. Phelps this week lashed out at the “public servant frenzy” by fresh graduates, calling it a waste of talent. As he is quoted as saying, “we hope to see more bright young men telling their mothers, ‘Mom, I am heading west, south or north to run a company.’”
On the one hand, it is easy to be sympathetic with Mr. Phelps’ urgings. Chinese government positions are hardly known for being innovative, efficient, visionary or forward looking. They also pay like crap. So it would be great to see China’s brightest pushing themselves to innovate and energetically lead the country up to the top of the world’s economic league tables.
However, there are a number of attractions that ho-hum civil servant positions hold for new members of the work force. Firstly, the jobs do provide security, as well as decent benefits and limited responsibilities. Secondly, and more troublingly for the country, China’s private sector has been facing a growing number of challenges in the past two years, hit by a double whammy of slowing economic growth and a public state-owned-enterprise sector that stubbornly seeks to maintain its hegemony in many sectors, thereby squeezing out (and even obstructing) business opportunities for private enterprises. Thirdly, and most cynically, uncontrolled corruption up and down the ranks of the government bureaucracy still serves to fatten the pockets of many a government official. So perhaps taking a job sitting on the side of power, even if it entails little more than pushing papers around a desk, isn’t a half bad way to make some dough and avoid stress and uncertainty. As the race course of the road to riches turns increasingly into an uphill slog, history and children’s fables both have shown that “slow and steady” beats out the galloping sprinters.

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