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China Table of Contents


Personnel and Job Mobility

From one perspective the most important element of China's science and technology system is its human capital--its trained scientists and engineers. By the 1980s it was widely recognized in the Chinese press that scientists, like all intellectuals, had been poorly treated, underpaid, and burdened with difficult living conditions that reduced their productivity. In many cases scientists' abilities were wasted because they were assigned to jobs outside their expertise or because their institute already had all the professionals in their field it needed and there was no way for them to change jobs (see Educational Investment , ch. 4). Many Chinese science policy writers were familiar with the conclusion of Western specialists that scientific progress and the effective application of science to practical problems are facilitated by personnel mobility. Accordingly, the March 1985 party Central Committee decision called for reform of the personnel system to promote a "rational flow" of scientific and technical personnel.

Throughout the late 1980s, however, job mobility and attempts to place scientists where their talents could have the greatest effect were the aspect of reform in which least was achieved. Transfer of scientists from one unit to another remained a major step, and a relatively infrequent one. According to the State Science and Technology Commission, 2 percent of scientists and engineers changed work units in 1983, and only 4 percent in 1985. Personnel still required the permission of their work unit heads to transfer, and that permission often was withheld. Many directors of institutes were accused of having a "feudal mentality," that is, regarding personnel as part of their unit's property.

The State Council reiterated in the mid-1980s that scientists and engineers had the right to do consulting work in their spare time. In practice, however, such spare-time consulting often created problems within the work unit as some institute directors attempted to confiscate payments for consulting or even to charge their personnel in the local courts with corruption and theft of state property. Although the press gave considerable publicity to scientists who had left the "iron rice bowl" of a Chinese Academy of Sciences institute to start their own business or to join a growing collective or rural factory, such resignations remained relatively rare. Possibly more common were practices whereby institutes detailed their personnel on temporary consulting contracts to productive enterprises.

The difficulties in transferring scientific personnel even when the Central Committee and the State Council made it official policy demonstrated the significance of China's unique work-unit system of employment and economic organization and the obstacles it presented to reform. Allowing personnel to decide for themselves to move out of the work units to which the state and the party assigned them would be a major break with the practices that have become institutionalized in China since 1949. Some observers believe that because of its potential challenge to the authority of the party, which controls personnel matters in all work units, job mobility for scientists, even though it would promote scientific productivity and the growth of the economy, may be too extreme a reform to be feasible (see Differentiation , ch. 3).

Data as of July 1987