First registered private business owner in China reflects on the changing times

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/8 18:38:39

Zhang Huamei is being interviewed on TV. Photo: CFP

Zhang Huamei is being interviewed on TV. Photo: CFP


Zhang's license is on display in her shop. Photo: IC

Zhang's license is on display in her shop. Photo: IC

While meeting with Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, Zhang Huamei was introduced as "the first registered private business owner in China." Li shook her hand and asked what business she ran. "Buttons," she replied, "Now it's an enterprise."

Thirty years ago, the businesswoman from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province would never have thought this day was possible. Her story of success represents the changing times in China and the increasing attention the government is giving to the non-public sector.  

First registered owner

Zhang started up as a vendor in 1979, but it wasn't easy. She was born into a family of seven, and her father had to support the entire family on only 30 yuan a month from his factory job.

In order to make ends meet, Zhang's father suggested that she learn to be a vendor.

So in the spring of 1979, 19-year-old Zhang set up a stall in front of her house and started selling small merchandise such as buttons, toy watches and elastic bands. She was one of 10 or so people in her street who did that.

It was a tough life. At that time, the only way to transport cargo in and out of Wenzhou was by boat. In order to purchase merchandise, she had to get up at 4 am to catch a boat, and it would take her a full day to get to Shanghai.

"I threw up every time and by the time I landed, I was dehydrated and weak," she said.

Furthermore, at that time, it was illegal to have a private business. It was called "engaging in speculation and profiteering," a concept that first emerged during China's planned economy era and officially became a crime in 1979. Anyone caught could get anything from their goods confiscated to imprisonment.

Zhang and others had to play a cat and mouse game with officials. They would put their stalls in front of their houses and had to immediately hide them away when the raids came.

Despite all the difficulties, having a stall greatly relieved her family's financial burden. She was able to earn up to 30 extra yuan a month.

But success did not change the status of individual business owners, who were still resented by many.

"When friends and relatives saw me on the street, they pretended not to know me," she said.

But the situation changed quickly. That same year, China introduced the opening-up policy, which began reforms in many aspects of society. The decision to grant business owners legal status came against that background.

The Industrial and Commercial Administrative Bureau, which had just been established in Wenzhou, sent workers to pass around forms to local merchants, telling them to get registered.

She didn't believe it at first. "Who needs registration when they're selling in front of their houses?" But she eventually submitted an application form and photos.

At the beginning of 1980, the State Council released regulations concerning the registration and management of individual businesses, finally freeing Zhang from living under the shadow of raids.

With that license, she rented a small shop and started legally selling daily merchandise.

She didn't even know she was the first registered private-sector business owner until 2004, when media started doing reports on the subject. By then, she was already quite successful.

Growing business

In 1982, when Zhang got married, she gave her shop to her brother and focused on taking care of her husband and later her son. But in 1986, she found life was getting difficult again. The family was living in a 12-square-meter apartment and her husband's factory salary couldn't pay for all their expenses.

She started another business trading fashion accessories, mainly shiny sequins. Her husband also quit his job and started loading cargo, traveling to Shanghai and Guangzhou. It only took her a year to make enough money to switch to a 40-square-meter apartment.

Zhang has met difficulties in business as well. In 1990, she saw that shoe-making was popular and wanted to get into that field and bought some materials. But neither she nor her husband knew the business and ended up losing everything.

Since then, she switched back to the old button trade she knew inside-out. Over the next 20 years, her business grew larger and larger and in 2007, she registered a company called Huamei Clothing Accessories, with 38 square meters of shop space and 160 square meters of storage. She now earns more than half a million yuan every year.

Her story is representative of many in the private sector. Today, Wenzhou is a famous entrepreneurial city, with more than 240,000 registered businesses there, a huge change from 30 years ago.

There's even more emphasis on encouraging private business owners nowadays, as Premier Li's meeting with these early entrepreneurs on Monday indicates.

On November 27, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council jointly released guidelines, stating that the country will provide equal, comprehensive and law-based protection to all property rights and encouraging the participation of the public in the process.

"I'm thankful to the opening-up," Zhang said. "Without the government's supporting policies, I never would be what I am today."

Newspaper headline: Riding the tide

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