From 996 to Civil Service? Why Programmers are Trading High Salaries for Iron Rice Bowls

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Programmers trade in their high salaries to become civil servants

The Public Examination Guide for Programmers “程序员考公指,” had been starred 14,300 times and forked 2,100 times. For those less familiar with GitHub, starring a repository acts as a bookmark and signals appreciation for the quality of the project, whilst forking a repository creates your own copy of the project.

Self-proclaimed as the first public examination guide for programmers, it references the success of three programmers who, whilst employed at the same internet company, were able to pass the National Civil Service Examination and enter the public system. One of them became a frontline civil servant based in the city, another took a job with a public institution 10 minutes from their home, and the other took office as a college and university teacher.

Many programmers have since chosen to ditch their jobs at large Chinese internet companies riddled with toxic 996 overtime culture, in favor of taking the civil exam and working for stable public institutions.

Thanks to Alice Osborne for her work on this piece.

Programmers give up their well-paid internet jobs and flood the public system|

放弃大厂高薪的程序员,涌进体制内 |4.10.2021 AI前线

AI Frontline WeChat Channel provides technical information, industry-use cases, and academic paper interpretation for AI enthusiasts, developers and scientists.

Authored by Luo Yanshan and edited by Cai Fangfang. H/t to Kevin Xu’s Interconnected blog for first featuring the piece.

What follows is a translation of several experiences from Chinese programmers that have traded in their well-paid jobs with domestic internet giants in favor of life as a civil servant. All research is that of the original author, Luo Yanshan; and at the request of respondents, He Shuang, Li Fan, Xiao Jin and Zhou Li are all aliases.

“My greatest joy now is that I can finally see the sun when I get off work.”

At 5:30pm on August 20, 2020, He Shuang was about to get off work for the day. He took a picture out the window and sent it to some friends with a simple caption – ‘the sun’. Born in 1992, He Shuang was originally a programmer, but in the middle of last year he decided to leave his job with a top-tier Chinese internet giant to go work for a public institution in Guangzhou. He took that photo of ‘the sun’ during the first day in his new position.

Public examination fever – kaogong re (考公热)

Taking the National Civil Service Examination, referred to in Chinese by the verb kaogong (考公), continues to gain traction during the epidemic. Statistics show that the 2021 National Civil Service Examination plans to recruit 25,700 people. During the initial registration stage, a total of 1,576,000 people passed the qualification exam – the highest in three years. The average competition reached 61:1 and the most competitive job recruitment ratio reached a high of 3334:1.

Many programmers have begun to consider looking for more stable jobs due to widespread concerns regarding internet companies’ 996 culture and the resulting effect it has termed “involution” (内卷) by Chinese online communities. In this context, involution refers to a situation where technological advancement in a society is no longer reflected in improved living standards among its people. ChinaTalk covered this context in more depth last year.

Regarded as the most stable way out, people often look for jobs “within the system” (体制内). In China, the system is known as the dominant organizational system of state agencies, state-owned enterprises, and public institutions.

Former programmers pour into “the system”

He Shuang, who worked as an intern at a major Internet company in Shenzhen after completing grad school, was caught off guard by the intensity of overtime work. He would leave work at 10 pm every night and sometimes even work overtime on weekends. This is why after working for less than half a year, he started to consider kaogong i.e., taking the national civil service examination. Soon after that, he became a husband and father, He Shuang’s thoughts about taking the examination grew stronger. He felt the need for stability, wanting to choose a city where he could afford to buy a house to settle in and end the current situation of living away from his family.

A lot of He Shuang’s former colleagues consider leaving the Internet industry and entering the public system too. For He Shuang, work in his new civil service unit is much more relaxed. Most of the time he is able to get off work before 6pm – and even with the occasional overtime finishes work around 8pm. Having made the switch to work within the system, he is very satisfied with his physical and mental health.

Li Fan, who is the same age as He Shuang, also felt tired of the never-ending overtime life (加班生活). “When the time came to take a break, I didn't want to do anything at all because I was mentally and physically empty.” Not long after graduation, Li Fan was sent to support the company’s other business. The tasks were contrary to the nature of her original work and her desire to take the public examination intensified. “Before being battered by society, I had been hell bent on making money. Now I just want to get my life back and live it peacefully”. Li Fan tried to prepare for the civil service exam whilst still working full-time for a large Chinese internet company and expressed that she really didn't have the energy to balance work and the public examination at the same time. She left her job in September of last year and devoted herself to exam prep.

Landing on the shore of civil service: additional context of 上岸

上岸, literally translated as “landing ashore”, this term is used to describe when people from outside the system pass the civil service examination and enter the system to work. 

Nowadays, in the context of the economic downturn, the rapid growth of the number of college graduates and the limited growth of corporate employment capacity have created a price scissor effect (剪刀差), resulting in a structural contradiction between the supply and demand of talent.

The Chinese government has taken a series of measures in response to this, among them being the recruitment of civil servants as a solution for college graduates seeking employment. In recent years, whether it is the national civil service examination or the provincial civil service examinations, the number of civil servants recruited has increased.

In the context of economic slowdown and reduced income, jobs that guarantee stability and income are the first choice for the majority of employed persons. The iron rice bowl (铁饭碗)of civil servant positions is still highly favored.

Entering the system ≠ a life of doing nothing

Xiao Jin, who similarly quit his programming job with an Internet giant and successfully landed ashore, is also largely satisfied with his posting to a university in Hangzhou. He notes that many people are currently of the impression that working for the system means doing nothing all day – simply drinking tea and chatting until work is over. But in fact, at least in fast-developing cities or industries, such situations are very rare and overtime is not the norm. Although the workload is substantial, the rate of personal controllability is very high. Everyone is inclined to be efficient during normal working hours so as to minimize interruptions after work. Most of the time we all have a certain degree of leadership in the project so can devote some time to self-improvement and our interests. During extraordinary periods like the coronavirus outbreak this is of course a little different.”

Limited opportunities to code

With regard to the content of work in these public service positions, the former-programmers now rarely write code and have changed to product or project manager roles. Since the core of Xiao Jin's work in colleges and universities revolves around education and teaching, there aren’t many opportunities to get real access to project source code. “Occasionally, I may write small tools myself to improve efficiency, but it is basically impossible to develop a huge project and take it from 0 to 100 in the institution. Moreover, there is an abundance of middleware resources to use, which relatively limits the improvement of technical practice capabilities.”

Says He Shuang, “the public system still cannot be compared with the top-tier internet companies”. The former programmers shared that their annual salary pretty much doubled after working with a major internet company for 4-5 years, increasing by up to half a million yuan. However, after the same amount of time in a public institution their salary may only increase by tens of thousands. The promotion system in public institutions is also very different with a relatively strict concept of titles and ranks. Xiao Jin points out that “no matter how many years you have been working outside or how old you are, when entering a public institution, you are a newcomer, and your rank reflects that. There is a unified national salary for those of the newest rank, which may be just over 100,000 in the first year”.

The sooner you enter the system the better?

The information age demands that various administrative units become increasingly information-based, thereby requiring a large number of professional computer maintenance personnel. Across traditional industries, civil services, public institutions, etc. there is widespread ambition to introduce talent for digital transformation and reform. These units tend to employ people with work experience in the Internet industry, so programmers from Internet companies still have a bit of an advantage.

With regard to entering the public system, He Shuang’s advises not to rush to resign from your job and take the exam because the pressure and risk is substantial. Li Fan, who took the exam having barely resigned, shared that having no income made him extremely anxious due to the massive pressure of taking the tests whilst using up his savings. Xiao Jin suggests finding a domain within the system that you are good at or interested in.

But worth taking into account is the threshold age for civil servants, which is set at 35. After this age there are restrictions on taking the relevant examinations, so “if you really want to enter the system then the sooner the better when the short-term salary gap is not so important” says Xiao Jin.

The health of internet workers is giving them cold feet

Many young people once yearned for positions in the high-paying and avant-garde Internet industry with the slogan "code changes the world" filling them up with vision and longing. However, as the overtime culture of 996 prevails and the so-called involution phenomenon becomes ever more serious, these young programmers go so far as to start doubting life (怀疑人生). Zhou Li, who has been working for just a year and a half in back-end big data development, originally planned to stay in Beijing for at least 3 years but now also looks to enter the civil service system.

He doesn’t know when it started, but workers are angry and mock themselves for being “internet workers” (打工人) as an expression of their dissatisfaction and the helplessness they feel towards the heavy pressure of overtime life. With his colleagues, Zhou Li began to question the next five years and “whether we would still be single, without a house or a car”. Employees who had stayed in his department for two years were starting to be regarded as the department’s elderly (老人). When he developed cervical spine problems in the latter part of 2020, his inability to care for his older family became was a defining moment.

“We are all labor-intensive workers, there seems to be no essential difference between us and 19th-century British workers”.

The internet industry will certainly be able to continue to develop, but Zhou Li feels the industry’s development will be difficult to sustain due to the people. “Our predecessors are all standing and working because their lumbar and cervical spine problems are too serious to sit down for long, stomach problems are also common." There is no shortage of fresh blood to keep the industry running, but who will protect the health of the internet workers?