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Golden rice bowls lose their luster
By Zhang Qian

THERE’S a brain drain of professionals once thought to have the most secure and desirable jobs — judges, doctors, teachers and customs agents. What happened to the coveted golden rice bowl?

Listening wisely from the bench, interjecting penetrating questions and delivering impartial justice — that’s what judges are supposed to do and the judiciary was once a desirable and highly admired profession.

But the verdict is in: That’s no longer the case.

An increasing number of judges are quitting around China and recruitment is increasingly difficult.

A report on the legal brain drain was hotly discussed at the Shanghai People’s Congress this month. The main reasons given: High pressure and low pay resulting in demoralized legal professionals. Private legal practice is more appealing, especially commercial law.

The same is true in Shanghai and elsewhere of other “golden rice bowl” (jin fanwan 金饭碗) professions such as doctors, teachers and customs employees.

Every year for the past 5 years, an average of 67 judges have left their positions in Shanghai. Last year 74 quit.

“Their departure poses great damage to the foundation of the judicial tam here,” said Cui Yadong, president of the Shanghai High People’s Court, who is also a deputy to the municipal congress.

Most of the exiting judges are between the ages of 40 and 50, “important professionals with experience,” according to Cui. “Some of them went to government offices, while others just quit for other opportunities.”

Over workload, low pay, low job satisfaction, lack of respect are commonly cited.

As the caseload increases continuously, every Shanghai judge must take on an average of 131 cases a year, around 2.25 times the national average, according to Cui.

Most junior magistrates need to work at least for one day on the weekends and sometimes hear as many as eight cases a day.

Some judges joke that they may need to wear a diaper because there’s no time for bathroom breaks.

Salary has failed to keep pace with the rising workload and rising cost of living.

Most new judges earn only 60,000-80,000 yuan (US$9,630-12,840) a year, which is roughly as much as judges at the same level earned seven years ago. Even a mid-level judge earns only around 100,000 yuan a year, while a lawyer with similar experience is said to be able to earn at least 300,000 in an enterprise.

Shanghai Daily has tried to interview several judges who have quit, but all declined to comment.

Judges are not the only professionals who consider themselves undervalued, underpaid and lacking respect.

The medical profession, education and customs department were once likewise esteemed and considered golden careers filled with opportunity and rewards.

High pressure and low pay are also driving these professionals away from their fields around China.

“High financial investment over many years with low remuneration and rewards best describe our job,” says Angela Jiang, a 30-year-old surgeon who has been working at a top-tier hospital for two years. She is exhausted after working from 7am to 6pm on most days and until 8pm when she performs surgery.

It takes at least seven years for medical students to get their master’s degrees, which is just the minimum to enter the profession. Many students spend another three years earning a PhD, so they can work in a top-tier hospital.

Then there’s a two-year internship in various departments before they may be offered a contract.

During that trainee period, most earn only around 3,000 yuan a month.

Most of Jiang’s classmates dropped out, around a third during medical school, a third after graduation an a third during internship. And others continue to quit.

One of her classmates working for a local second-tier hospital says 10 doctors quit the department of internal medicine last year.

Today, Jiang has a contract and salary of 96,000 yuan a year. A classmate with a bachelor’s degree was earning 150,000 yuan in her first year at a pharmaceutical company in 2008. The classmate does lab work and leaves on time on most days. Jiang, a new mother, wishes she had more time to spend with her son.

Many people, including doctors, say that the increasing conflicts between patients and doctors — and violent patients — are driving doctors away.

“But in my view, the high pressure and low income are more powerful reason,” says Jiang.

John Wang, 45, quit the medical profession years ago to work as a salesperson for a pharmaceutical company. He believes he made the right decision.

“It is always hard to practice medicine, and doctors’ pay hardly equals their investment,” says Wang. “It’s not that being a salesperson will be any easier, but at least you will be paid fairly for your work.”

Research by three Shanghai medical schools indicates around a quarter of medical students are pessimistic about their prospects since it’s difficult to study medicine and even more difficult to practice it.

Many don’t see medicine as a promising career. The research was carried out in 2011 by the medical schools of Fudan, Jiao Tong and Tongji universities and the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Two thousand students were surveyed.

Though working from 7:30am to 5pm or later is routine for middle school teachers, Lisa Wang, still chose the job because it’s stable and secure, and reasonably well paid. She earned around 4,000 yuan a month in 2008.

Now that salary doesn’t seem so good, since costs are rising for everything, but her paycheck doesn’t keep pace.

And what was once a tenured job is no longer secure since new policies effective in 2012 require all teachers to be reexamined every five years to keep their certificates and demonstrate that they are up to date with the latest teaching methods and thinking in education.

“Both the two advantages, salary and security, are gone, I just don’t see anything promising in the career,” says Wang, who says that some of her classmates already quit. She plans to leave too when a good opportunity presents itself.

A civil service post in the customs department used to be highly coveted because of pay, security and perks. Many of those who take the civil service exam every year aim for customs.

David, a section chief of the Shanghai Customs House, says many newcomers are disappointed. He himself declines to give his full name.

He tells of a fresh graduate from a rural area who struggled to pass the exam and join customs, only to find the pay was just 2,000 yuan per month. He bust into tears, saying he could earn the same at any factory in his hometown.

“He quit within two months and jumped into the arms of a foreign-invested company,” says David.

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