“Full Employment” in Tibet: The Beginning and End of Chen Quanguo’s Neo-Socialist Experiment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 18 Issue: 3

Chen Quanguo meeting with retirees during his time as Tibet Party Secretary


On November 8th, 2017, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) published its second and final public job intake for the year, completing its annual process of announcing open public and civil service positions for eligible university graduates from this sensitive minority region. Notably, the timing was unusually late. Public job announcements are usually issued shortly after tertiary graduation dates in August or early September.

There is ample reason to speculate that the delay was caused by a drastic, unannounced change in Tibet’s public employment policy, one that may not prove popular with young, well-educated Tibetans in the region. The total numbers of advertised public jobs in the region fell sharply to 5,844, just over half of the previous year’s 10,030 positions, leaving thousands of graduates to compete for employment in the private job market.

To informed observers, this sudden adjustment marks a silent abrogation of the “full employment commitment” instituted by the region’s previous Party Secretary, Chen Quanguo. [1] After Chen was transferred to China’s northwestern Xinjiang region in August 2016, the TAR’s government apparently decided to abandon his popular yet unsustainably expensive employment policy. However, the abrupt nature of this policy shift and the resulting gap in public employment opportunities holds considerable risks for the future stability of this sensitive region. Importantly, the TAR’s termination of its “neo-socialist” stability experiment raises wider questions about the sustainability of China’s subsidy-driven approach for maintaining stability in restive minority regions.

The Genesis of Chen Quanguo’s “Full Employment Commitment”

In 2007, the TAR was China’s last region to end the “graduate job assignment system” (毕业生分配制度), a key feature of socialist society in China and other Communist nations such as the former Soviet Union. Job assignment meant that university as well as vocational secondary graduates were guaranteed a job in a government work unit, be it a state-owned enterprise or a government or related public service agency within the civil service system (公务员制度) and public service units (事业单位). In much of Western China, the private sector remains severely underdeveloped; especially in lesser-developed minority regions, secure, well-remunerated employment is difficult to obtain outside the public sector. This dependence is especially severe in remote regions such as Tibet. Additionally, minorities such as Tibetans often find it difficult to compete with the Han majority for private sector jobs, which require fluent Mandarin.

Consequently, in the years after 2007, thousands of TAR university graduates struggled to obtain employment that would be considered adequate for this more highly educated population segment. When Chen Quanguo assumed the position of TAR Party Secretary in autumn 2011, the region was still grappling with the aftermath of the 2008 Lhasa uprising, as well as a growing wave of self-immolations in the neighboring Tibetan regions in Sichuan Province. Self-immolations have been especially popular among the younger population (International Campaign for Tibet). Meanwhile, rapid economic growth resulting from economic liberalization processes initiated by previous administrations had led to soaring urban-rural income discrepancies. In minority regions such as Tibet, urban-rural income gaps are essentially indicators of inter-ethnic inequality, as over 90 percent of the TAR’s Tibetan population is rural.

Shortly after assuming his new post, Chen tackled the issue head-on by proclaiming an all-out “full employment commitment” (全就业的承诺) at the Eighth TAR Party Congress in November 2011 (Zhongguowang, March 21, 2013). This step came in the context of Chen urging officials to “do everything possible to create more job opportunities and positions” (千方百计创造更多的就业机会和岗位) (CCTV.com, January 3, 2012). Chen’s “full employment” policy effectively reinstated the erstwhile graduate job assignment system, albeit with variations. Its measures specifically applied to TAR residents who sat their university entrance examination (高考) in the TAR and who were TAR residents at that time. In 2014, regional news outlets proudly announced that the TAR had achieved “four consecutive years of full employment” for its graduates (Renminwang, March 7, 2015).

Indeed, annual numbers of formal public job adverts soared from 4,680 in 2010 to 10,313 in 2011. Advert numbers peaked at 14,500 in 2012, exceeding that year’s tertiary graduates by an estimated 4,000. The 2012 public job bonanza was presumably designed to provide employment opportunities for unsuccessful applicants from previous years, who were also eligible to apply. State media stated that between 2011 and 2016, a total of 61,862 TAR tertiary graduates, or 84 percent of all such graduates, obtained government jobs (Xinhua, December 30, 2016). Thousands of the positions were allocated through various TAR police forces (China Brief, September 21, 2017).

Likewise, the 2015 graduate employment report of Tibet University, the TAR’s top tertiary institution, noted that 81 percent of its graduates that year secured employment in government-related positions, 14 percent in state-owned enterprises, and only 5 percent in other, potentially non-state work units (Xizang Daxue, December 29, 2015). Even though graduate employment in western China is traditionally dominated by state employment, this non-state employment share is nevertheless surprisingly low. After all, 43 percent of that year’s graduates were Han, and both Han and minority graduates fluent in Mandarin are typically able to secure well paid private sector positions. By 2016, Tibet University’s graduate employment situation remained largely unchanged, with 74 percent of graduates entering government work units, 14 percent taking up positions in state-owned enterprises, and only 12 percent securing positions in non-state work units (Xizang Daxue, February 15, 2017).

During the six years of the full employment commitment (2011-2016), the TAR advertised over three times more civil service positions per capita than Xinjiang. Doing so resulted in bloated cadre ranks and major long-term financial commitments, since those in formal government employment cannot be laid off unless they commit significant misdemeanors. Even so, Chen’s ambitious promise anticipated Xi Jinping’s drive for stability maintenance (维稳) at nearly any cost, primarily applied through state-led, top-down investment.

The End of Full Employment: A Silent Abrogation

The government appeared to quietly abandon the full employment policy in mid-2016; the term has been conspicuously absent in official statements and media coverage since then. However, even in 2015, when TAR media channels were touting the success of the initiative, the year’s total public employment intake marked the lowest since 2011. By advertising 10,010 public jobs, the region would likely have hired roughly 9,000 graduates (based on an estimated 90 percent hiring rate). Other sources permit us to estimate the number of eligible TAR-resident tertiary graduates in 2015 at about 9,700. [2] This slight discrepancy by itself would not have been a cause for concern, considering that there are at least some private sector employment opportunities in the region. However, in 2015 TAR residents were allocated nearly 15,000 new tertiary study spaces, a figure that increased to a record-breaking 20,249 in 2017. [3] As a result, the estimated number for TAR graduates, all eligible for Chen’s full employment commitment, can be forecasted to nearly double between 2015 and 2020, from about 9,700 to about 18,000.

The definitive and abrupt end of Chen Quanguo’s policy took place in 2017. In the face of an estimated cohort of nearly 11,000 tertiary graduates, the region only advertised 5,844 civil service positions, leaving almost half of all eligible graduates to secure adequate employment from other sources. Media reports noted a record number of 47,500 applicants for these positions, marking an applicant-to-job ratio of 8.1 (Phoenix Information, November 28, 2017). In 2010, before the full employment commitment, this ratio stood at 5.8, whereas by 2013 it had dropped to only 1.7. [4] As is evident from the figure below, the ratio of public jobs to applicants is set to rise sharply in the coming few years.

Sources: TAR public employment adverts (高校毕业生公开考录计划) and tertiary student intake allocation tables (招生计划)

No official reason has been given for the abandonment of Chen’s measure. However, informed sources have told the author that rising graduate numbers had made the full employment policy too costly for the TAR government. The central government was reportedly unwilling to further subsidize the resulting growth in human resource expenses, and it was widely felt that guaranteed positions reduced the motivation of local university students to study diligently. Chen Quanguo’s transfer to Xinjiang allowed the TAR to quietly abandon his policy without causing its former leader any political embarrassment.

Tibet After Full Employment: What Comes Next?

Since publishing lower figures for new public jobs in November, the TAR government and state media outlets have shifted to emphasizing other longstanding employment support measures. In particular, the state wants graduates to take up job opportunities in the more developed parts of China. Through the “pairing assistance” (对口援藏) program, other regions in China have offered 40,000 job opportunities to TAR-resident graduates since 2012 (Tibet News, December 9, 2017). In 2017 alone, there were 11,065 such positions, 1,872 of which were based in Guangdong.

However, according to the Tibet News, the Guangdong job offers only resulted in 105 expressions of “employment intentions” (就业意向) between graduates and employers, filling only 5.6 percent of the positions. Informed sources told the author that Tibetan graduates dislike long-term resettlement to locations outside the TAR, as this uproots them from their cultural, linguistic and natural environments, despite the existence of generous government subsidies (Xinhua, December 9, 2017; State Council Information Office, August 21, 2014).

The government’s emphasis on moving highly educated TAR gradates to other regions raises the question of why it does not do more to secure them better private sector job opportunities at home. A forthcoming research report on private enterprise career paths in the TAR reviewed by the author shows that nearly all managers above the low-middle level are Han migrants from Eastern China. Moreover, those Tibetans that were able to advance in the ranks were both fluent in Mandarin and well-adapted to Han cultural and behavioral patterns.

Even though local Tibetans might lack experience or expertise compared to their Han counterparts, the government should double down on its efforts to systematically train and integrate them into Han-dominated contexts in order to boost Tibetan private sector employment opportunities more effectively. In addition, preferential employment policies, which have been part and parcel of public job recruitments for decades, could play an important role in the private sector as well.


Chen Quanguo’s full employment commitment was a bold, expensive, and ultimately unsustainable measure for promoting social stability in this restive region. The quiet abrogation of his policy during the past 12-18 months has implications beyond the future stability of Tibet. With China’s local government and corporate debt levels at record heights, the end of the full employment policy in Tibet raises wider questions about the sustainability of the state’s strategy of buying social stability and popular support in Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere through massive state-funded and infrastructure-driven investments.

For Tibetans, the future holds rising levels of competitive and assimilatory pressures. To secure well-remunerated private or public jobs at home, strong Mandarin skills and a willingness to firmly integrate into the mainstream culture are becoming ever more important. Subsidized employment opportunities only exist for those willing to detach themselves from their socio-linguistic habitat.

Consequently, those who are poised to benefit from all these job opportunities are Tibetans who are firmly embedded in Mandarin-language education, often those from the region’s top schools in Lhasa or other major urban centers. Their employment outcomes contrast sharply with the much larger numbers of Tibetans who remain in the educationally inferior Tibetan schools. However, it is precisely these lesser-educated and harder to assimilate segments of the population who pose the greater threat to the region’s long-term stability, especially if their upward mobility prospects after the end of the public employment drive turn out to be dim. Rather than attempting to move this population group away from Tibet, the government could focus on providing them meaningful employment opportunities closer to home, while ensuring that Tibetan language skills are an asset rather than a hindrance in private job markets.

Adrian Zenz is lecturer in social research methods at the European School of Culture and Theology, Korntal, Germany. His research focus is on China’s ethnic policy and public recruitment in Tibet and Xinjiang. He is author of “Tibetanness under Threat” and co-editor of the “Mapping Amdo” series of the Amdo Tibetan Research Network.


  1. Here and below, “informed sources” refers to Chinese (Han or minority) academics with a research focus on the TAR and/or Tibetan regions in general.
  2. Based on TAR tertiary intake documents (招生计划) for each year.
  3. See Fischer and Zenz (2016) and (2017).
  4. Calculated based on various media reports.