This is a guest post, and is not your typical opinionated Peking Duck fare. But I found it quite moving, even if it will likely not ignite a lot of discussion.
Zhang Hua Mei
China is currently a driving force in the world economy, a rapidly developing country that appears to be on the brink of dominating on a global scale. This is in large part due to the communist country’s relaxing of formerly rigid business regulations to allow for entrepreneurship and innovation. Private companies may now exist and run business under the watchful eye of the government. With a population of over a billion people, the potential for economic gain through entrepreneurship is truly unprecedented in the history of the world.
Such optimism and freedom was not always the case. Before de-regulation, private business owners were decried as “speculators” and “profiteers,” working against the government and looked upon in disdain. That all changed in 1979, when Zhang Hua Mei received the first legal business license in the People’s Republic of China’s history, becoming the first entrepreneur in China.
After graduating from junior middle school in the city of Wenzhou, Zhang had no job prospects. Her family badly needed her financial support. So at 19 years old, she decided to venture into business on her own. Seeing an opportunity, she carefully invested in buttons and other accessories. At the time, state-run stores were the only ones in business, but their goods were often outdated and overly expensive.
Her self-named business sold these fashionable and relatively inexpensive items with great success. She was making two yen a day in profit, or three times more than she could have made as a government worker.
However, what she was doing was illegal and cause for concern. Setting up shop on a small table outside her front door, she put her freedom and reputation in danger. Classmates would walk by and turn their backs on her. The government could come calling at any time to shut her down and take her profits and wares.
The government did come calling, but instead to offer her a legal way to maintain her business. Wenzhou had been chosen by the government to trial China’s new policies on economic reform. The city’s branch of Administrative Office for Industry and Commerce was giving out business permits to the self-employed. A representative approached Zhang at her house about the new policy. She struggled with whether to accept or not. She was worried that if policies changed she would face greater hardships.
She eventually caved, applied for, and received her permit. Still hanging in her store, it is hand-written in calligraphy and includes the monumental license number 10101. 1,844 business licenses were given in Wenzhou in 1980, and Zhang Hua Mei received the very first one.
Since then, Zhang has continued in the entrepreneurial spirit of her first venture with financial highs and lows. She once lost almost all her money in a failed shoe business, recovered, and then switched back to a business focusing on buttons. Last year, she opened up her company, the Huamei Garment Accessories Limited, being a wholesaler of hundreds of types of buttons and the exclusive agent for a top Chinese button brand called ‘Weixing’.
She competes nationally with other businesses started by entrepreneurs following in her footsteps. By 1987, the number of licenses given to small business owners grew to ten million. Today, there are over 27 million self-employed people in China.
Zhang Hua Mei was the first, an unwitting entrepreneur with no ideas of grandeur, only aspirations to make enough to take care of her family. Little did she know, but her button business would help bring about an economic change in China that is transforming the rest of the world today.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.