Ballet at a crossing

Rush hour at the Wulumuqi Road and Changle Road crossing in Shanghai in the late afternoon of a fine autumn day as pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, cars, buses and trucks dance with one and other to get through.

3400Can I get through?

3401Going against the flow?

3403Lets go for it!

3405I know that I am on the red light.

3409Business attire required.

3412Squeezing by.

3414All means of transportation accepted.

3415Keeping the place clean.

3418We are loaded.

3420Getting through.

3427Don’t touch me.

3428Just crossing.

3432Whizzing through.

3438Let us get on with it.


Note: Photos by author

An amazing feat

Over the last decades, China has achieved a drastic reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line. In 1981, 88% of the population was living below that line. That number now stands at 4%. The poverty line is defined as a person living on less than $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity.

This amazing achievement has been accomplished since the economic restructuring that began in 1978, and has continued uninterrupted since. Per capita annual income has increased from $200 in 1990, to $5,000 in 2010, and has continued to improve.

Poverty reduction occurred in stages. The first stage happened in the rural areas with the introduction by the central government of the Rural Responsibility System which allowed families to produce more than their allocated production quota. The additional production was sold on the open market at market prices.

The second stage was the progressive opening of the Chinese economy to foreign direct investments (FDI) that created a multitude of enterprises geared towards exports, capitalizing on the low cost of labour. This had the impact of creating a large number of unskilled positions that brought many people into well-paying jobs in an urban setting.

poverty-level*Living below $1.90 a day, using 2011 $ at purchasing-power parity. Source: The Economist

In the early 1990s, the central government privatized small and medium size State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) removing the rigid constraints of a centrally planned economy and placing these companies in a market economy. Once subjected to the forces of the market, millions of employees were laid-off, but within a few years many more jobs were created due to the innovative needs placed on the new owners.

In parallel, in 2001 China joined the WTO (World Trade Organization), accelerating the economic development of the country. Many more foreign enterprises elected to establish a facility in China, again adding a large number of jobs in an urban setting. By now, local entrepreneurs had also started creating employment opportunities.

By the turn of the century, at least 200 million people had been lifted out of poverty. In the next 10 years, another 200 million people would follow, as the economic expansion continued. By 2014, a total of 700 million people were lifted out of poverty, leaving only 4% in economic difficulties. These last 55 million people are now the focus of the government.

The efforts to continue reducing poverty is one of the key objectives of the government 13th Five-Year Plan period (2016-2020). The goal of the central government is to eradicate poverty by focusing on the 128,000 poor villages and 832 poor counties, predominantly in rural settings, in provinces located away from the coastal zones. In addition to focusing on economic conditions, the government is aiming to increase the quality of education, health services and housing.

The prime strategy to address these challenges is to encourage the development of competitive industries such as tourism and agriculture. In regions with limited economic development potential, residents will be moved. People will be relocated to areas which have greater economic possibilities. In addition, the government will introduce a guaranteed basic living standard for people unable to work.

gansuTourism features as a key economic tool in Gansu province, which has a GDP per capita at half the national average, and 4 times lower than the leading areas. Source:

In spite of these successes, different challenges were created as a result of this rapid economic growth. Probably, the greatest social challenge in China is the economic inequality that currently exists. In the 1970s, everyone had roughly the same economic level; more or less everyone was poor. As economic growth accelerated, and the economy moved from a centrally planned to a mixed economy (i.e. a combination of centrally planned and market economy), inequalities emerged. People who had post-secondary education were able to command higher salaries. Entrepreneurs were able to start businesses that rapidly flourished. Others were able to benefit from the privatization of small or medium size SOE’s. These groups of people raced towards reaping the benefits of rapid economic growth while the individuals with no or limited access to these capabilities progressed at a much slower pace.

Another challenge created by the central government relates to the partially deregulated liberty of movement. The Household Registration System (hukou) or similar methods have always been a cornerstone of the Chinese government’s desire to control the internal movement of its citizens. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s people were given the opportunity to relocate but without establishing a permanent residency in their new location. This allowed this floating population of roughly 250 million people to move from rural areas to cities in search of better paid work. As these people did not have the hukou in the city where they worked, their children and at times their spouse had to remain behind. This has created a diaspora across China of broken families that are only reunited for 5 to 14 days, once a year during the Spring Festival (i.e. Chinese New Year) held in January or February.

Both challenges are being addressed by the central government but at a rate that will see these inequalities solved at a slower pace. By 2020, it is quite probable that the poverty issue will have been nearly resolved, but the problems caused by the substantial economic inequalities and the large floating population will probably take longer.


Guokao time

Every year on the 4th Sunday of November more than a million people write the National Civil Service Examination (NCSE) required to apply to positions with the national government. This selection process launched in 1994 is modeled on the imperial examination, which goes back to the 6th century. The purpose is to provide equal opportunity to people across the country for desirable positions within the national government.

ncsvApplicants getting ready to write the China’s National Civil Service Exam. Source: Getty Image

In 2016, a record 1.5 million people from across China applied to write the common exam for 27,061 openings. Candidates are invited to apply to the positions that are of interest, with some positions garnering more than 10,000 applicants. At the same time, roughly 800 positions had no applicants as they are located in faraway regions or require particular training or knowledge.

Chinese citizen are eligible to register for this exam if the candidate is under 35 years old (40 for Master’s and PhD (age discrimination!)) and have a college degree as a minimum. People can apply as often as they want. In 2016, a woman wrote it for the 6th time.

The NCSE is a test that comprises two phases: the written test, and if you pass an interview. The written test comprises 130 multiple choice questions that need to be answered within 2 hours. These questions cover topics in language, math, logic, data analysis, politics, law, culture, etc. The following are two examples of questions that may be asked. The answers are provided at the end of the post.

  1. Observe the images below and pick out the right one that belongs to the blank or the group.


  1. The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami showed humans the power of the nature. Although we have islands and submerged reefs as natural barriers to tsunamis, we need to be prepared for potential dangers. Sometimes the earthquake in the deep ocean does not cause any loss as the epicenter is far from the land, but the tsunami generated by the displacement of the water can cause huge damage. Tsunami waves can move at 800 km per hour in the ocean and can be several meters high. The main argument in the paragraph above is
  1. Earthquakes and tsunamis warn people to pay attention to the ocean
  2. Earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean warn us to focus more on oceanography
  3. Tsunamis generated by earthquakes can cause huge damages
  4. Natural disaster is cruel

If a candidate is caught cheating, the person is banned for life from applying for a government job, and for serious cases, a criminal charge can be brought against that person possibly resulting in a prison term of up to 5 years.

The second part of the written exam, of a 3-hour duration, is an essay writing on policies with topics covering social issues, civil disputes, etc.

Applicants often begin studying for the exam months in advance. A small industry has been created to respond to the needs of preparation material, which is not unlike what is offered in the West for GMAT, LSAT, and others. Books, online material and classes are sold to potential candidates.


Study material to prepare for the National Civil Service Exam. Source: JOJBuy

Once the results are available in January, the successful candidates are then invited to an interview. Once a further screening has been done, the results are shared with the respective government departments who have posted job openings, allowing these departments to invite candidates for further interviews and evaluation.

Numerous people are interested to work for the government as these jobs are for life. Unless a person abuses their position (i.e. corruption), the employee will not be let go, regardless of personal performance. A steady income is offered along with good benefits, and a work environment with limited stress.

In addition, public servants have a good reputation and are well respected. To work for the government implies that the individual is helping build a better society. The extended family of the employee will be proud to see that one of their own is now a public servant.

The other point that has to be taken in consideration is the job market. With 7.6 million college and university graduates a year, and a soft job market that is not able to absorb this number of graduates, students are pursuing all job opportunities.

Unfortunately not all is rosy. Generally jobs are paid at a much lower level than in the private sector. Middle managers in their 30’s will be paid around 120,000 RMB (C$24,000) a year, while in the private sector, they might be paid 3 to 5 times that amount. Job security comes at a high financial cost.

Government employees will generally work in a system that is not conducive to personal growth or development as there are limited opportunities for horizontal transfers or promotion. This will often lead to boredom and low motivation.

Also, as employees progress within the civil service, they will reach a level where being a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is often required. This might further curtail opportunities for promotion of non-CPC members.

In regards to the selection process, the high standards that are applied and the desire to apply a meritocratic process can only be lauded. China is a society that prides itself in being inclusive. Unfortunately, this system is rigid; offered only once a year and standardized (i.e. one size fits all) for all job types. There are no signs of nimbleness and capabilities to adjust to rapidly evolving situations. In an era where the government is pushing to realign the economic model of China, with a substantial emphasis on innovation and creativity, is this system preventing changes within the government?



Question 1: From left to right, there’re increasing numbers of small shapes in each image. 1. One round 2. Two quadrangles 3. Three candle-shaped images 4. Four trapezoids 5. Five triangles. The image with six small shapes is the correct answer.

Answer: A

Question 2: Answer: B