breadcrumb

College Graduates Compete for Jobs Sweeping Streets

Tong Peng spent six months discovering his bachelor’s degree was “worthless” before deciding to apply for a job as a street sweeper.

He graduated from college in Harbin in June, 2012, not expecting to find it so tough to find work with a college degree. He tried over and over but failed, his last shred of dignity crushed.

Tong changed jobs three times in rapid succession, working first in a factory making cans, small and large. Next, Tong worked as a warehouse administrator in a pharmaceutical factory, handling colorful boxes of medicine. That was followed by a gig passing out flyers for an insurance company.

The jobs were dull and unstable at best, offering him a salary of less than 1,000 yuan [$150] a month and not much hope for the future.

In September, his mother burst into Tong’s room with a newspaper ad, excited that the city of Harbin was looking for street sweepers, a chance at a solid job with the state. He lacked the courage to say no.

“This is government employment with full benefits,” his mother emphasized. “What’s wrong with sweeping the streets? We won’t go bankrupt as long as the government doesn’t.”

A heavy metal fan who played guitar through four years at college, Tong decided to heed his mother’s advice. He was tired and disillusioned: “Hard work isn’t about realizing a dream, but living a better life,” he said.

In mid-October, the Harbin Municipal Urban Management Bureau said it had received more than 10,000 applications for 457 jobs in the city’s service industry. Of the 7,186 applicants who paid the application fee, 2,954, or 41 percent, were college graduates. Twenty-five applicants held a master’s degree.

In one district alone, there were 721 applications for twenty jobs as sanitation workers.

Tong was intimidated: “Who knew it was so tough to become a street sweeper?”

Two city hotlines rang around the clock, receiving 1,000 phone calls a day. Due to high demand, recruiters extended the application deadline by a day. One company quickly established a class specifically designed to train recruits applying for jobs at the sanitation department, charging them a “discounted” price of 580 yuan [$90].

One applicant, twenty-six-year-old Zhang Landi, spent 25 yuan [$4] on test preparation materials he then offered to share for free online. Within three days he was contacted by more than one hundred interested netizens, most of them Harbin college graduates.

Tong began to see why the jobs were so hot. First, they were government jobs with full benefits, stable for even the worst candidates. Second, the jobs offered a Harbin hukou, or residence permit. Third, employees who received outstanding performance reviews for three years could be promoted to management positions.

Seeing the insurance clerks working around him, with their anxiety-induced bad complexions, Tong went home early to review the application materials.

He pored over Sanitation System Specialized Knowledge Problem Sets, a booklet asking deep questions such as, “When sweeping the streets, can you push a broom?”

“It’s easy but it needs to be taken seriously,” Tong said. “Many people say we lack ambition, but getting government employment with full benefits is our biggest ambition.”

“A Sense of Stability”

At the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the kind of government jobs Tong and his peers are fighting for today were established to provide a public service. These jobs were the building blocks of the planned economy—organized by the government, planned by the government, and paid for by the government in order to fulfill its will.

Over the decades, the system has grown enormous. China now has about 1.3 million government institutions paying nearly 30 million employees. These jobs account for more than 30 percent of the national government’s annual expenditures. And Harbin, an old industrial base, is home to more than 8,000 such institutions with more than 200,000 employees.

Twenty-six-year-old Liu Lin is a temporary worker for the Bin County government in a suburb of Harbin. He has suffered through odd jobs doled out every day over the past two years. Though he has no specific assignment, he must do what the boss asks. But as a part-timer, he has no social security, no chance for promotion, and often doesn’t get paid on time. He decided to quit and apply to drive a street sweeping truck. An official government job, that’s all he wants. “You can become a cadre in a government institution, that’s the essential difference,” Liu said.

More and more young people are fighting to get government jobs. In Harbin’s recruitment drive, 8,723 applicants took a test competing for 388 positions in 2011. One job alone—as a tour guide to the Northeast China Martyrs Memorial Hall—drew 1,300 applicants.

Sociologist Sun Liping says that by the end of 2006, the average pension drawn by government-affiliated public service sector employees was twice that of workers in the business sector. With the development of the national reform of allowances and subsidies, the gap in pension benefits will widen.1

Of the 8,000 or more frontline sanitation workers currently employed by the city of Harbin, fewer than 10 percent have education beyond high school. Sixty-two percent are fifty years old or older, and 23 percent are older than seventy years old. Wang Yong, deputy director of the Harbin Sanitation Management Bureau, expressed high hopes for the new recruits: “We hope to improve the quality of sanitation workers.”

Li Yi, the environment section chief of the bureau, was surprised by the flood of recruits: “We anticipated 1,000-2,000 applicants, but not 10,000.” Li acknowledged that the government benefits were the greatest draw. To prevent high turnover, the bureau announced contracts of a minimum of five years for the first successful applicants. If they quit early, they lose the benefits associated with the job. As the senior sanitation worker in charge of Harbin’s Nangang District Square, Liu Yumei worries that younger workers might quit. She rises at 3:00 a.m. each day and is on duty by 4:00, standing for eight or nine hours as she cleans 7,000 square meters.

Liu, a full time sanitation worker for eighteen years, is the only government employee with full benefits on her team of one hundred workers. She earns 2,200 yuan [$353] per month, compared with the temporary workers’ salaries of 1,600 yuan [$256]—barely enough to get by on. From her point of view, the job’s great comfort is its stability—the pension after retirement. She can’t forget a sixty-year-old temporary worker, too old to sweep the streets and so poor that he had to return to work on the farm.

For Tong Peng, 23, stability is the scarcest resource. He hopes for stability against the odds. After filing his street sweeper application, Tong often observes the temporary street sweepers in their forties and tells himself: “I’m different from them. They’re temporary workers and I’ll have a government job with full benefits.”

The Excited Mother

Li Shengfeng, 22, applied for a job as a street sweeper at his forty-six-year-old mother’s insistence. A small-time clothes peddler, she was impressed that “the sanitation bureau is bigger than my tiny market stall.” A recent college graduate, Li was reluctant to apply at first. Born in 1990, Li grew up the son of a mother who worked in a large state-run garment factory and a father and grandfather who, during the 1980s, worked in a successful state-run factory repairing machinery.

In the late 1990s, a government plan to reinvigorate state-run enterprises inside three years brought about widespread layoffs. Li still remembers that when he was little his father told him proudly that his whole family were “the nation’s workers.” He never expected their “iron rice bowl” to be taken away overnight. In desperation, his mother started her peddling. His father borrowed money and bought a small truck to start a moving business. Today, his family of five lives in a forty-square-meter [430 square feet] two-bedroom apartment. At the time, the sudden change in his family’s fortune and the dire straits in which they found themselves sparked doubt in Li’s mind about government jobs and the “iron rice bowl.” Nowadays, he listens to his mom: “Companies can go bankrupt, but how can a nation go bankrupt?” she says. “Let alone a sanitation bureau, which is part of the public service?”

During the frequent slow cycles in the clothes peddling business, sometimes his mother can’t sell more than ten items each month. She constantly whispers to her son: “We should have confidence in our nation.” Based on what he sees around him, Li agrees. After graduation, he worked as a mechanic, a supermarket stock clerk, and an administrator in a steel warehouse. The longest job lasted for one month. Meanwhile, one of his peers got a job in the cigarette factory where his parents worked, easily earning a monthly salary of 6,000-7,000 yuan [$1,000]. “The rich work in a cigarette factory while the poor take the street sweeper jobs,” Li complained, finally applying for the sanitation job. “In the end, cleaners are still government institution employees and work for the nation.”

Still, Li had a hard time imagining that the street sweeper job had drawn so many applicants competing for the post.

Twenty-six-year-old Zhang Landi was considering quitting his white-collar job at a heating company in Harbin because it has “no security, no pension.”

Liang Zhiwei, a bus driver with a monthly salary of 5,000 yuan [$850], still regards a job without a pension as “too dangerous, not worthwhile.”

Nearly every applicant for the street sweeper job mentioned a pension and stability. So did Li. His father, now nearly fifty years old, is still running his small truck around the city, but its brakes don’t work that well. He’s exhausted, but tells Li, “You are still young, but you need to plan for the future.”

And Li is planning, counting on being transferred to a management position: “I am willing to wait. I can climb higher until the people ahead of me get old.”


  1. In 2010, China’s central government began preparations to address a widening wealth gap between rich and poor. The “national reform of allowances and subsidies” is a part of that ongoing project.—ChinaFile
Southern Weekend is one of China’s most popular and influential newspapers. Founded in 1984, it is owned by the independent-minded Southern Daily Group. In 2002, the New York Times described Southern...
Civil Service Examinees, 2002-2012
Why Read This?

Since Deng Xiaoping started China’s economic liberalization over three decades ago, millions of Chinese, especially the young, have abandoned the security and benefits of working for the state and sought greater opportunities and freedoms in the emerging market.

In 1994, China’s government made passing a newly created exam a mandatory qualification for employment in the nation’s civil service, in jobs ranging from teaching school, to cleaning streets, to leading tours. Only 40,000 people took the exam over the following seven years.

But around 2002, the number of test takers began grow as ever more people sought the security of government work. In 2012, a new record was set—1.11 million Chinese took the civil service exam to qualify them for just 12,927 government positions nationwide. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, for some jobs the competition was so tough that only one in every 10,000 applicants was hired.

The following article from the Southern Weekend newspaper puts a face on these dramatic numbers.

Most of the job applicants in this story are young, well-educated, and united by the conviction that even a low-status civil service job provides a surer path to stability than jobs in the private sector.

Though the subjects of this story come from northeast China and are of relatively low socio-economic status, their stories are reflective of a growing sense of insecurity about China’s present condition, which pervades Chinese society at all levels.

By Fan Chenggang, Xi Yihao, and He Fengling.

This story was first published in Chinese in Southern Weekend on November 1, 2012 and was translated for ChinaFile by Yijun Mao and Ouyang Bin.

Features

03.21.14

Punching a Hole in the Great Firewall

JEFF SOUTH

In January, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published its exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls, the Chinese government blocked access to the consortium’s website and to news articles about the report...

Features

02.14.14

It’s Hard to Say ‘I Love You’ in Chinese

ROSEANN LAKE

“We didn’t say ‘I love you,’” said Dr. Kaiping Peng, Associate Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. I’d ventured over to his China office on the campus of Beijing’s mighty Tsinghua University to talk to him about the romantic...

Features

01.30.14

Which U.S. President Said What About China?

DAVID M. BARREDA

On January 28, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned China twice in his State of the Union address. In the past thirty-four State of the Union addresses, U.S. Presidents have referred to China twenty-nine times. Which President said what? Take this ten question quiz and find out.

Features

01.26.14

For Freedom, Justice, and Love

THE EDITORS

Following is legal activist Xu Zhiyong’s closing statement at the end of his trial in Beijing on January 22, 2014. According to his lawyer, Xu was only able to read “about ten minutes of it before the presiding judge stopped him, saying it was irrelevant to the case.” On...

Features

11.08.13

Document 9: A ChinaFile Translation

THE EDITORS

This weekend, China’s leaders gather in Beijing for meetings widely expected to determine the shape of China’s economy, as well as the nation’s progress, over the next decade. What exactly the outcome of this Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress of the Chinese...

Features

10.25.13

Bo Xilai May Have Gotten Off Easy

OUYANG BIN, ZHANG MENGQI & others

On October 25, the Shandong High People’s Court rejected the appeal of Bo Xilai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing who on September 22 was convicted of bribe-taking, embezzlement, and abuse of power and sentenced to life in prison.At the end of Bo’s trial, many...

Features

09.19.13

China’s Fallen Mighty

OUYANG BIN, ZHANG MENGQI & others

Political infighting and purges have been hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party since its earliest days but came to a peak during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, damaging the country and paralyzing the Party itself. When Mao died in 1976, it was agreed by Party survivors...

Features

07.24.13

Carried Off

CHARLIE CUSTER

In March 2011, Rose Candis had the worst lunch of her life. Sitting at a restaurant in Shaoguan, a small city in South China, the American mother tried hard not to vomit while her traveling companion translated what the man they were eating with had just explained: her adopted...

Features

07.23.13

Discrimination in China’s Schools

THE EDITORS

In a new report titled As Long As They Let Us Stay in Class: Barriers to Education for Persons with Disabilities in China, the New York-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) outlines systemic discrimination against students with disabilities in...

Features

06.06.13

Bad Medicine

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN

In 1967, as the United States sank into war in the jungles of Vietnam and China descended into the cataclysm of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese soldiers secretly fighting alongside the North Vietnamese also battled swarms of malarial mosquitoes. Showing remarkable foresight,...

Features

11.06.12

Fragments of Cai Yang’s Life

CHEN MING

The man suspected of smashing the skull of fifty-one-year-old Li Jianli, the owner of a Japanese automobile, has been arrested by police in Xi’an; he is twenty-one-year-old plasterer Cai Yang.Cai Yang came to Xi’an from his hometown of Nanyang [seven hours away by train],...

Features

10.11.12

Will Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize Finally Mean Better Book...

JONATHAN LANDRETH

Literature in translation in the United States has wide but shallow roots, making English language stars out of the likes of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Haruki Murakami, but leaving most of China’s writers struggling to take hold. Now, veteran translator Howard Goldblatt, the...

Features

09.18.12

A Mosque of Their Own

KATHLEEN MCLAUGHLIN

The women of Sangpo know well they are the guardians of a 300-year-old custom that sets them apart in Islam and they are increasingly mindful that economic development could be that tradition’s undoing.Sangpo, a dusty hamlet about two hours from the capital of China’s...

DISCUSSION

The Other China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

On the same late fall day in 1991, two stories about China appeared in the Western press. One announced that thirty-five drug dealers had just been executed in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, probably by a single police bullet fired into the back of each man’s neck....

The Chinese Miracle?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Over the last few months the news and reportage about China have become almost incomprehensibly divided between two points of view. According to one set of reports, China is now confirmed as an economic “colossus,” shaking off all the trammels of the past, yearning to host...

Is There Enough Chinese Food?

VACLAV SMIL

1.Many Americans think they know something about Chinese food. But very few know anything about food in China, about the ways in which it is grown, stored, distributed, eaten, and wasted, about its effects on the country’s politics, and about its importance to the rest of the...