Theclassroom filled up with a mixture of recent graduates and postgraduates, together with people who wanted to change careers or who had spent the years since graduating preparing for the exam. We sat on small hard chairs and squeezed our legs under the small desks. The people in the high-school classroom were not just my competitors; they might also be my future colleagues. No one knew which of us might be the future director of a large bureau in the ministry, or become a city mayor, and who would remain sitting at a desk in a standard-sized office year after year, or not even get that far. We all had a single goal: to become a civil servant. The proctors passed out the test and started the clock.

A job in the Chinese civil service brings a number of enviable benefits. Civil servants are highly respected. They are allocated apartments at a low price and approached by all manner of people and companies eager to please them. And, as long as they follow the rules, they can’t be dismissed from their posts. Despite the comparatively low salaries, the security and importance of the job attracts about a million applicants a year to the civil service examination.

I was applying for a junior position in the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which is ranked low among the 26 ministries and commissions of the State Council, a reflection of the government’s attitude to environmental issues. Unlike the ministries in charge of mineral assets, listed companies or banking, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has few resources and none of the powers wielded by the Ministries of Public Security or Party Discipline Inspection. Even so there were still more than two hundred applications for six junior positions.

Everyone applying for a job in the civil service sits the same written test. It has two sections: a two-hour ‘administrative occupational ability test’ followed by a three-hour writing and exposition exam. Each accounts for half the total score. The occupational ability test consists of such questions as: ‘There is a well ten metres deep. A frog sits at the bottom of the well and can leap upwards five metres. The walls are slippery and the frog falls back three metres at each leap. How many leaps does it take for the frog to jump out of the well?’

Candidates can improve their scores by practising for some questions, but others resist all preparation. ‘Please replace the question mark with the most suitable image from the four options so as to make them display a certain pattern’:

Chinese civil service exam question

The correct answers to the ‘common sense’ section cannot be achieved just by using your common sense. It is impossible to guess the correct response. For example:

The essence of life is:

A. An organic combination of proteins, nucleic acids, sugars, lipids, water and inorganic salts
B. A form of material movement
C. Cells
D. A form of neural strength

You might be tempted by A, C or D, particularly if you think this is a question about biology. But the correct answer is B, because the question tests an understanding of the world according to Marxist philosophy. One Marxist doctrine states that the world is material and materials are moving. Life is material and it is moving, therefore life is a form of material movement.

The normative role of the law includes:

A. Guidance, evaluation, punishment, coercion, education
B. Instruction, evaluation, education, prediction, punishment
C. Guidance, education, coercion, encouragement, prediction
D. Guidance, evaluation, prediction, education, coercion

The four options look almost the same. The only way to know the correct answer, D, is to know Chinese Communist Party dogma perfectly. In fact a large portion of ‘common sense’ comes down to party dogma. Confucianism defined common sense for more than a thousand years but the party has determined it since 1949. To succeed in the civil service entrance examination, you have to memorise the answers printed in party documents, school textbooks and training materials.

In China, what is the fundamental way to solve the main social contradictions?

A. Practically strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership
B. Ensure the dominant role of the public sector in the economy
C. Take the path to reach common richness
D. Vigorously develop social productivity

Many candidates may be tempted to choose A. After all, ‘strengthen the CCP’s leadership’ is the correct answer to most questions. Some candidates may choose C, because Deng Xiaoping said ‘to be a socialist doesn’t mean you have to be poor’. Prosperity for all was the goal of the economic reforms he initiated in the 1980s. But the correct answer is D. After the party successfully completed the socialist transformation in China, the main contradiction in Chinese society was no longer class struggle, but instead the contradiction between the development of social production and the needs of the people. According to Marxist theory, social productivity is the ultimate determinant of social development, so in order to reconcile the contradiction, it is necessary to improve social productivity, and hence the material circumstances of society to meet people’s needs.

The three-hour shen lun exam was in the afternoon. ‘Shen lun’ literally means to expound, discuss and verify. Its origins can be traced back to the imperial examination of the Sui Dynasty (581-619 ad). Confucius’s opinion that ‘a good scholar who studies with relative ease can become an official’ is deeply rooted in the Chinese educated classes. In ancient imperial examinations, candidates were invited to write on political topics and to offer policy suggestions to the court. The best essays were examined by the emperor himself. This procedure is still the basis for selecting administrative officials in Chinese society. The language has changed from Classical Chinese to Mandarin, and the emperor and ministers are now party and personnel officials, but the skills required to get a high score remain the same. A candidate needs to write essays in a particular way in order to show that she can think and write like a normative civil servant.

How do you ensure you score more than your competitors in essay writing? Not by being the most elegant writer, nor the most eloquent, but by demonstrating a command of official style. Outstanding candidates write their essays in neat handwriting. They choose the most appropriate words, they quote from the classics and they express complete loyalty to the party’s Central Committee. The content of what they write is, of course, shaped from the top. It is no exaggeration to say that Xi Jinping’s reports to the Party Congress are the civil servant’s bible. Candidates must be sufficiently familiar with the congressional reports and Xi’s lectures. Key paragraphs must be memorised.

With a high score of 45 in the written exam, I defeated the majority of other applicants and went through to the second round: the interview. The shen lun exam tests whether one can write the official language; the interview tests whether one can also speak it correctly. My interview took place in a large conference room. Nine panellists sat facing me on the other side of a long crimson table. In front of each was a pile of CV folders and an identical white teacup. On my side, all the chairs had been removed except one. I had a piece of A4 paper and a bottle of water.

I was the first candidate that day. A senior official, seated in the centre, read out the rules: ‘There are five questions on the piece of paper in front of you. You have one minute to read a question before you start to answer. You have five minutes to give your answer.’ I read the first question:

In Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, at 2 a.m. on the eighth day of the lunar new year, a rumour emerged that chlorine had leaked from a chemical plant in a nearby industrial park and that the plant would soon explode. As a consequence, more than ten thousand people tried to flee, with severe disruption to local traffic. Four people died in a traffic accident. The local government responded quickly. They refuted the rumour on television and over the internet, and released statements saying that there had been no accident, no explosion nor any leakage of chlorine. At the same time the relevant departments ordered additional inspections of the safety and environmental conditions in industrial parks. They also tracked down the rumour-mongers. Residents returned to their homes the next morning and order was restored to the city. Please comment on this incident.

I remembered reading in the newspaper that something had happened at Yancheng four months ago, but there was no time for reflection. I picked out the key points of the story: ‘chemical plant’, ‘rumours’, ‘local government’s quick response’ and ‘order was restored.’ The way in which the incident was narrated made clear the way the authorities viewed it: there was no accident in the chemical industrial park; instead a malicious rumour caused the exodus. The examiners wanted to test our views on public crisis management. An essential part of the civil service exam syllabus is Mao’s three steps of materialist dialectics: find the problem, analyse the problem, solve the problem. The first step is to point out the nature of the problem and the contradiction it reveals. The second step is to analyse the contradiction and find out who, or what, is responsible. The third step involves proposing policy recommendations.

I began my answer this way: ‘This incident concerns panic in a community brought about by rumours of a leak and possible explosion at a chemical plant. The panic caused deaths, affected social stability, and must be taken seriously by the relevant departments.’ I looked at the faces opposite me. Their expressions were steady, showing no signs of surprise. I continued:

First, the spread of the rumour shows that the official information channel in Yancheng was not effective. This was partly why a rumour could spread rapidly and get out of control within a couple of hours. Second, people were so frightened that they fled the area, even though there was no evidence of a leak. This reveals people’s mistrust and fear of the chemical plant. Third, the local government’s response was fairly rapid and effective after the incident. Although ten thousand residents fled, government officials persuaded them to return home the next day. The situation was quickly brought under control, avoiding a worsening of social instability.

My analysis leads me to propose that the local government adopt the following policy. First, improve communication with the local community by holding press conferences and releasing regular reports about the state of the major industrial parks. Second, strengthen the environmental supervision of chemical industrial parks, reinforce the management and inspection of pollutants and chemical production, and punish the plants that are not in compliance with regulations. Third, establish a rapid response mechanism for emergencies in the city to ensure that there is no delay in reporting and reacting to a crisis. All departments must co-operate to prevent such incidents from happening again.

The civil service admission list was revealed the next day. I was on it.

Butwhat really happened in Yancheng? The question has lingered in my mind in the eight years since my interview. From the perspective of the civil service, the policies I proposed were correct, otherwise I wouldn’t have been offered the job. But I don’t fully believe the official news, or the local government’s statement, just as I don’t fully believe my own answer. Was the rumour that made families flee at 2 a.m. really just a rumour? Did the government really inspect the factories and industrial parks as they claimed? Nothing about that had appeared in the media. All the reporting was identical.

I looked into the background of the Yancheng industrial park. It had a bad record: two months before the incident there had been a chlorine leak, which poisoned more than thirty people. Three years earlier an explosion had killed eight people and injured many more. A village of four hundred people stood next to the site, separated by a road. The nearest chemical plant was only 250 metres away from the houses. According to government statements after the incident, local police had detained two suspects accused of ‘fabricating and deliberately spreading false news’. The family of the people who died in the traffic accident was compensated.

Then, on 21 March last year, an explosion shook Yancheng’s industrial park. Images of giant spiralling flames and a dark grey mushroom cloud quickly spread on local news and social media. Only a few casualties were reported at first, but the number gradually increased throughout the day. Four days later, the official figure gave 78 dead and 566 wounded. A large proportion of the wounded were people who lived in the vicinity of the factory. The explosion damaged doors and windows at ten schools. At a nursery a kilometre from the explosion site and at a primary school almost three kilometres away, children were injured by broken glass as their classroom windows imploded.

The number of casualties meant the accident received national attention. Even the Central Committee and the State Council got involved. Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang gave speeches. Two days after the explosion, the State Council established the Serious Explosion Accident Investigation Team, led by the minister of the newly established Department of Emergency Management, whose mission is to guide ‘ministries in all regions responding to emergencies’. Relevant parties rushed to the scene. The official response was completely in line with the views that I had expressed during my interview. The government’s priority was to show how active and responsive it was. They spoke the official language. But what was the real number of casualties? Why were those industrial parks still running after years of poor safety?

News about the explosion soon died down. It was said that the public security bureau took measures against those who ran the industrial park. Later on, the park was closed. Whether the closure is temporary or permanent isn’t clear. In my mind I can see the hundreds of civil servants in related departments who worked hard to manage the crisis. They did it skilfully and to the appropriate standards. I think those on the front line must have sympathised with the people affected by the disaster, and considered themselves lucky not to live near hazardous industrial parks. I believe they must have done as well as I did in the civil service examination. It is unfortunate that the accident they dealt with wasn’t just a ‘rumour’.

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