Reform Shatters 'Iron Rice Bowl'

BEIJING--As many as half of the 49,000 researchers in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) could lose their jobs under a plan to modernize operations and cut costs. The changes will shrink the academy's current roster of 123 institutes by more than one-third and replace lifetime employment agreements with a system of short-term, renewable contracts.

Speaking at the annual CAS working conference held here earlier this month, President Lu Yongxiang said the restructuring is intended to break the "iron rice bowl," a Chinese term meaning a lifelong guarantee of employment and living subsidies under a planned economy. "By the end of 1999, we hope to keep 80 selected research institutes and employ scientists and engineers by contract only, the way most industrialized countries do," he said.

The new policy is Lu's first major initiative since the 55-year-old mechanical engineer took office in July. The new contract system will be introduced gradually, beginning with employees hired in the last 2 years. People will compete for positions, and those who do not retain their slots will be offered other work or given reduced salaries until they find another job. "We should not be too harsh on them, since they have made their contributions to the development of the institute and CAS," says Lu Dadao, director of the CAS Geography Institute in Beijing.

The new policy is aimed at improving the overall quality of CAS institutes, beginning with a self-assessment to identify strengths in basic or applied research or in technology transfer. Each institute will then submit a long-term plan, and those earning the highest marks in each area will continue to receive CAS funding. Others will be urged to seek support from other sources, including local governments and private industry. During the transition, institute budgets will be frozen, and any additional state money will go for bonuses to reward outstanding performance or to support new projects.

"We have lagged behind the country's transition from a planned economy to a market economy," says Wu Lebin from the CAS news office. "By carrying out these reform measures, we hope to increase work efficiency and make the best use of our financial resources."