Peking job-seekers get in the swim: Chinese workers are savouring a new-found freedom to choose and change their jobs in a free market economy, writes Teresa Poole

HALF AN HOUR after the doors opened, thousands of young people were still milling around the entrance. Crowds were pressed up against the railings by the ticket desks, each outstretched arm proffering 2 yuan (15p) at the ticket- sellers in the hope of buying an entry pass. But the expansive China International Exhibition Centre was already full, said the officials, stubbornly insisting it was unsafe to let anyone else in until some people left.

Was this one of Peking's rare rock concerts, perhaps? Or a cut-price consumer electronics bazaar? Or, given that this was China, did this crush of humanity signal an offer of free food?

Not quite. This was the scene at the opening day of China's first National Talented Personnel Fair, a four- day job-hunting bonanza aimed at the cream of China's educational system and members of China's professional classes. Job mobility, and the freedom to change one's employer, is a booming phenomenon in China. One 28-year-old Peking man, fed up with his job in a nuclear power company, was inquiring about jobs in far western Xinjiang province. A 26-year-old metals engineering graduate from Liaoning province was looking for a better salary and a more relaxed working environment. A 39-year-old mathematics teacher from a remote region in Shaanxi wanted to find a new job in one of the fast-growing coastal areas of China.

In the jargon of the day, it is known as 'swimming' in the talent market. If the official figures are to be believed, more than 100,000 job-seekers attended this jobs fair. On the other side of the prospective partnership, 30 provinces and cities sent delegations, and 68 central government ministries were there looking for staff. Altogether, nearly 1,000 companies and organisations set up stalls where job application forms were disappearing as quickly at they were put out, and curriculum vitae were the currency of the day.

The freedom to choose one's job, and the freedom for employers to hire and fire a suitable workforce, is gradually seeping into China's employment system, transforming at least some people's career options. For the best-qualified workers it means the possibility of choosing where and how one wants to live and work; for the employers it is a challenge to beat the skills shortage that is threatening China's reforms. 'A nationwide grab for talent is on,' said one official from the Personnel Ministry. Underdeveloped areas have to provide inducements to attract staff: a diesel-engine manufacturer in the inland Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was said to have paid about pounds 12,000 to hire 11 graduates from Peking's prestigious Qinghua University.

Under the former, centrally planned economic system, graduates were allocated to jobs when they left university or college, and the strict household registration system meant Chinese people needed permission to move to another city. Once a job was assigned it could not be abandoned without the payment of a substantial fine. One physics teacher who was looking around the talent fair, graduated as recently as 1991 but said he must stay in his job for five years or pay a 20,000 yuan ( pounds 1,750) fine.

After a decade of economic reform, this system is now breaking down. Free-market principles are being allowed to overturn employment practices; wages are no longer set by the state, workers can be fired, those with skills can seek the most attractive offer, and people can change enterprises. The Shandong province talent- seeking delegation this month said it was looking for 10,000 technicians and experts. This may not come cheap. A new system is now evolving whereby either the graduate or the enterprise must pay a certain amount of money - up to pounds 1,000 - to the university or college if both sides want to come to their own employment arrangement. Even so, of the 32,000 graduates from Peking's colleges and universities this year, about 10 per cent paid to find their own jobs.

'Job markets' are sweeping China. Song Defu, the Personnel Minister, said this month that nearly 1,000 talent-exchange centres had been established in China to serve as 'a bridge between labour supply and demand'.

At the desk of a petrochemical company from Hainan province, the booming island off southern China, more than 1,000 people had applied for jobs. Joint venture companies, or those with the possibility of foreign travel, were the most popular. 'Air-conditioning is not so interesting, but this company offers the opportunity of going abroad,' said one final-year student.

The event at the China International Exhibition Centre this month was the first national jobs fair. According to one of the organisers from the Personnel Ministry, it was mainly aimed at those with tertiary education. Across the country, local job markets, like the one held every Sunday in the Xuanwu district of Peking, tend to be aimed mostly at those with high school education. The Xuanwu market has been visited by 100,000 people since it opened in August 1992, of whom 20,000 have found new jobs. Yang Chuan, the chief of the market, said: 'Most have jobs already. Many just want to change to a better job, with better conditions.' It was started because of 'demand from the labour force', which first started to emerge two or three years ago, he added. Each Sunday, around 70 companies, joint ventures, factories, shops and hotels set up desks at the Xuanwu workers club and talk to prospective, mostly white collar, staff. Job-seekers must bring an ID card and proof of their educational qualifications.

The Peking Fashion Knitwear Company was looking for shop assistants and said more than 40 people had already applied for the 10 vacancies. One woman filling in the form, at the moment a waitress, said she wanted the job because it was nearer where she lived. At a nearby desk, the Dong Fang hotel group said more than 100 applications had come in for waitressing and public relations jobs at their food and recreational company.

A 27-year-old manager from the Peking Commercial and Trading Company, looking for management personnel and electronic appliance maintenance men, explained: 'In the past, if the company needed some employee, we would submit an application to the Labour Bureau who would send us someone. Now we can choose, we can employ the people who meet our demands.'

For employees it is usually a trade-off between better pay in the new system, or the security of the old system. Job mobility means leaving behind the lifetime guarantees of the 'iron rice bowl' system which offered jobs, accommodation, and social services for life. This way a freer workforce also suits the government; it tempts people off the expensive meal-ticket-for-life system.

In practice, the mobility is not all it is in theory. Mr Mao, at the national jobs market, admitted that moving from the state sector to collective or privately owned enterprises 'still has some difficulty'. A management PhD student was even more sceptical: 'I don't have too high an expectation. Even if I come here and find a suitable work unit, it is still difficult to actually get a good job. Fair competition is still not so common in good work units.' By which he meant that a friendly connection with the company is often the best way to secure a good job.

On campuses, a popular saying encapsulates the ambitions of today's youth in China. 'To go abroad, to go to joint ventures, to the place with gold and the place with power.'

(Photograph omitted)

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