The idiom “iron rice bowl” refers to the guarantee of lifelong employment which was extended to all China’s workers by the Communist Party in the second half of the 20th Century. After business, industry, and institutions were nationalized and re-fashioned as State-Owned Enterprises, each working adult was placed in a work unit called a dān wèi, 单位 (lit. one’s place, one’s seat). The dān wèi was all-powerful during the tightly controlled decades of 1950-1980, deciding whether and when a person could marry, have a child, enter the military or a university, or apply to join the Party. No one could travel or be allocated housing without the dān wèi’s permission. Perhaps even more critical, rations for grain and edible oil, the main sources of calories, were controlled by the work unit. At its heart, the dān wèi system was a promise that basic food would always be guaranteed—hence the phrase, the iron rice bowl. It was iron, not porcelain; nothing could break it.
The system had certain advantages for the worker. It was extremely stable; unless you seriously transgressed, or quit, the job was yours forever, and you didn’t have to work too hard, either. In fact, your performance was hardly judged; it was your political ideas that were scrutinized. You had benefits, like subsidized housing, and health care. You retired with a pension in late middle age. But there were negatives, too—good performance would not necessarily bring advancement or increases in pay, and movement was difficult; social stratification (albeit in a new form) was worsened. Even more serious, the dān wèi wielded enormous control over workers’ personal lives, essentially functioning as the state’s agent in social engineering, its decisions driven more by local heavyweights than by the rule of law. The “iron rice bowl” was a system that gave everyone lifelong job and food security, but at a high price.
“Smashing the iron rice bowl” has been a long process of closing down state-owned enterprises, laying off millions of workers, and letting many businesses and industries shift back to the private sector. For many workers, especially younger ones, the transition is not an unhappy one. It is spoken of as xìa hăi, 下 海, to jump into the ocean (of private enterprise). Yet an interesting, if modest, counter-trend has begun to emerge in the last few years, one of growing nostalgia for the decades of the dān wèi, wit its lifetime employment. In 2013, 1.5 million applicants hoping to return to bureaucracy registered to take entrance examinations for the civil service, a 15% jump over the prior year. The “iron rice bowl” still has its allure.