Sitting in an inconspicuous corner, Lu Dongchang was so absorbed in filling out his application forms that he forgot to take off his motorcycle helmet and was quickly soaked with sweat.
The 30-year-old Lu, a farmer from east China's coastal province of Shandong, had traveled 20 kilometers in scorching heat from his home village to Zhangqiu City for the opportunity he had long been waiting for: to become a member of the civil service.
This year Shandong opened over 2,700 county-level government positions to people passing a set examination. For the first time it was the applicant's knowledge and not identity, which carried the day.
This means any farmer like Lu who is younger than 35 and has the college degree required of all candidates, is eligible to apply to sit for the examination.
Tuesday was the last day for applications and by Tuesday morning 16 farmers had been registered as qualified candidates in Zhangqiu. Many other farmers were successful in the 138 other registration offices across the province.
"The 16 farmers only constitute a small proportion of the 700-strong final contestants, but this is still something of historic significance," said Gao Ruiying, director of personnel department of Zhangqiu city government.
Over the years the exams to recruit civil servants have been monopolized by urban dwellers.
Owing to China's long-time policy of curbing the flow of farmers into the cities so as to reduce the urban welfare burden, it has been impossible for governments to employ any farmer as a civil servant, said an official with the Shandong provincial personnel department.
"I failed the college admission test by a narrow margin and also couldn't stay in the city after serving three years in the army," recalled Lu.
But a new gate was opened to him in 1997, when Shandong became the first province in the country to have farmer contestants in the civil servants recruitment exams for township governments, the lowest level in government organizations in China.
Seeing a friend pass the exams and become one of the first 41 farmer-turned-civil servants in the province, Lu found his hopes rekindled. After two years of hard study, he acquired a college graduation diploma in 2001 from the Adult Education School of the Shandong University.
"Today I have finally got a chance to prove myself," said a confident Lu.
The introduction of farmers into the civil service shows discrimination against farmers is gradually fading away from the Chinese society, said Ma Guanghai, a professor of sociology with the Shandong University.
"China's market-oriented reforms over the past two decades and more have brought a strong impact on the traditional system of separated management of urban and rural populations, and have also led to a major change in people's attitudes," Ma added.
(People's Daily August 28, 2002)