Hundreds of thousands packed out schools and universities across China yesterday to take the national civil service exam, with a record number registering in search of a stable government job.
More than 1.5 million people applied to sit the exam, the Beijing Times reported, over 30 times the number a decade ago. They are vying for about 20,000 government vacancies, according to state television.
The rapid expansion in recent years has been boosted by the perception that government jobs offer stability and status, test-takers said.
Outside the Hujiaolou middle school in Beijing, one of dozens of test sites in the capital, Liu Ting, a 24-year-old student, stood clutching a red revision book containing lists of "hot" political jargon to be used during the test.
"I'm taking the exam because government jobs are more stable," Liu said. "There's basically no chance of losing a government job once you have one."
Most candidates are university graduates, part of a huge expansion of higher education on the mainland with almost seven million new graduates set to hit the job-market this year, the state-run China News Service said.
A 31-year-old woman surnamed Liu said she hoped to swap her private-sector job as a quality inspector for a government post because "the benefits are better, and you don't need to worry about pensions or health insurance".
Cindy Liu, 27, a flight attendant, expressed more exalted motives, saying she had been "reading the works of Chairman Mao" and hoped to "serve the people".
Those who pass the exam will also have to pass a tough interview process before they can gain a government job.
Government officials are widely seen as corrupt and dozens of cases of graft have made headlines this year. But Cindy Liu, who hopes for a job in the Foreign Ministry, said: "It's possible to be a clean official."
The current civil service exam is a descendant of the ancient imperial examination system known as the Keju, which was introduced in the 7th century and is often regarded as the forerunner of the so-called meritocracy, or system of government based on individual merit.
But authorities this year are on the lookout for cheats, with anyone caught breaking exam rules barred from sitting again for five years, the Beijing Times reported.
The hundreds of thousands sitting the exam have created a thriving training industry, with representatives from several coaching schools crowded outside the middle schools' aluminium gates to greet the test-takers.
"We hope the students who do badly will come and train with our school next year," said one employee surnamed Qiu, who was sporting a yellow vest emblazoned with the words "I can pass the civil service exam".