Mainland media have been abuzz since a senior National People's Congress deputy said the number of civil servants had grown by one million a year for the past four years.
The government was quick to deny the claim, with a spokesman saying there were only 6.9 million civil servants, not 10 million as claimed by the NPC deputy. However, that figure does not include those who work at quasi-government bodies and public institutions such as government-funded universities.
The reports have touched a raw nerve on the mainland, where there is a common perception of civil servants being inefficient and corrupt spendthrifts obsessed with red tape.
Streamlining overstaffed government bodies has been on the central leadership's agenda since the era of Deng Xiaoping. When Premier Wen Jiabao took office, he said it would not be possible to ease the financial burden on farmers without streamlining government.
'There's one county with a population of between 120,000 and 130,000, and more than 5,700 of them get paid from the public purse,' he said at his first press conference as a premier in 2003.
Despite efforts since then, including a restructuring of the central government in 2008, the number of government employees keeps growing.
The number of positions offered in the national civil service exam, used to recruit staff for central government departments, has grown steadily over the past six years, from 12,000 in 2007 to 18,000 this year.
If grass-roots employees are included, there were about 7.8 million civil servants and employees of quasi-government bodies in 2010, plus another 884,000 staff of Communist Party organs and public institutions, who enjoy similar pay and benefits to civil servants. Their numbers increased by an average of 150,000 a year between 2008 and 2010, according to statistics from the State Civil Service Administration.
Many people believe the real number is a lot bigger. Liu Xirong, a National People's Congress deputy and former deputy secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee's Politics and Law Commission, provoked a heated discussion during the NPC's annual session earlier this month when he put the number of civil servants at 10 million, with their ranks growing by about a million more in each of the past few years.
The Legal Daily quoted Liu as saying that his source was Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference spokesman Zhao Qizheng, who mentioned the number at a press conference during the CPPCC session last year.
'I believe that as the CPPCC spokesman, Zhao would not make some casual remark. He must have had a source,' Liu said, adding that the real number was in all likelihood much bigger given that it was very common for local governments to exceed their permitted headcounts but underreport staff numbers.
Li Huizhi, a researcher who specialises in institutional restructuring at the privately run Xinfu Research Institute, said the huge number of civil servants had led to an overlapping of functions among government institutions, giving them excuses to shirk their responsibilities.
'It has weakened the government's policymaking function and greatly increased administrative costs,' he said. 'It also helps create a bureaucratic atmosphere.'
Li said an official from Guangzhou's Meixian county said it had 400 people working in the Communist Party system, who are generally regarded as civil servants. This meant that the 2,854 counties on the mainland could have roughly 1.14 million defacto civil servants in the party system alone.
Professor Mao Shoulong, from Renmin University's school of public administration and policy, said it was hard to pin an exact number of people being paid from the public purse, as many of these were not counted as civil servants in official statistics.
'For example, the head of a state-owned enterprise is usually appointed by the government and his pay should also be appropriated by the government,' Mao said.
He added that according to administrative management theories, government institutions tend to be twice as big as they need be. 'And in China, which has such a big population, they're four times as big as they really need be, or even more,' he said.
Professor Qi Fanhua, from the same school, added that the need to create jobs had contributed to the large number of redundant staff at government bodies. 'When a society's job market cannot provide enough jobs for such a huge population, public institutions have to help absorb excess job-seekers,' he said.
He said it would be unwise not to consider social stability and simply emulate the percentage of civil servants elsewhere in the world. The US, for example, has just a quarter of China's population, but nearly 10 per cent of its people out of work, he said.
He called for more transparency in civil service statistics, including salaries, as well as administrative expenses, so that they can be better organised and supervised.