Striving for a Better Future

ByZhang Jiamin December 27, 2023
Striving for a Better Future
Zhang Huamei, China's first self-employed entrepreneur to obtain official permission to engage in a private business [VCG]


First License for Individually-Owned Business

Zhang Huamei, a native of Wenzhou, a city in East China's Zhejiang Province, was 18 years old in 1979, just after China had introduced its reform and opening up policy. Wenzhou's residents have long been known for their tradition of engaging in trade. Since the launch of the reform and opening up policy, many have started small businesses. 

Zhang, who wanted to help her father support the family, decided to sell small commodities near her house. Several items, including buttons, memorial medals and watch straps, were all she could offer at her "shop" — a wooden table. 

On December 11, 1980, Zhang received a business permit from the Gulou industry and commerce office, in Wenzhou. The document, labeled Number 10101, was hand written, and it contained a photo of Zhang. She never expected that permit would be the first license for an individually-owned business issued in China. 

After she obtained the official license, Zhang cleared a room in her house, to make room for her business, and she bought some shelving to display her commodities. 

In 1980, some 1,840 people in Wenzhou obtained permits to operate private businesses. Since then, self-employed individuals, generation after generation, have navigated the surging tides of the market economy, and they have created many miracles. 

In 1982, Zhang married Yu Xinguo, and she closed her business so she could prepare for the birth of her son. In 1985, Zhang's family moved into a new apartment, in downtown Wenzhou, which was purchased with 9,000 yuan (US $1,250) borrowed from relatives and friends. In 1986, Zhang reopened her business, and she began selling garment accessories. Yu later resigned from his job, with a collectively-owned enterprise, to help Zhang with her business. Within one year, the couple was able to pay off all their loans, and they became well-known in their community. At that time, they had more than 10,000 yuan (US $1,388) in savings, which was a huge sum in those days. 

Amid ferocious competition, the couple in 1990 reinvented their business, and they began selling leather shoes. They paid dearly for their lack of experience in the field, as they lost more than 50,000 yuan (US $6,944) in one year. 

In Zhang's vocabulary, no word is more powerful than "persistence." Zhang and Yu spent a year disposing of overstocked shoes, and they rented a shop to sell buttons, again, in 1994. In three years, Zhang and Yu repaid their loans, and they built up their savings. In 1997, the couple shocked their neighbors when they purchased a Volkswagen, for 300,000 yuan (US $41,666), which at the time was considered a luxury item. She realized the significance of the business license she obtained in 1980. 

In 2007, Zhang established Wenzhou Huamei Garment Accessories Co., Ltd., to streamline operations, and she became the company's chairperson. Her shop covered more than 200 square meters in Renminxilu, in Wenzhou. The company's main business remains buttons to this day.

Great Era

Zhang's experiences have been the epitome of China's reform and opening up, and her experiences have reflected the rapid growth of self-employed individuals in the country. 

In 1981, there were one million self-employed individuals in China; by 1987, the number had risen to 10 million. In 1999, China had about 31.6 million self-employed individuals. 

Zhang is representative of Chinese women who have grasped the opportunity, offered by the time, and who strove for better lives, with self-reliance. 

"Given the fast development of the Internet, our clients, from different regions of the country, contact us through instant-messaging software, and they place their orders and pay online," says Zhang. She believes it is convenient to use online channels to conduct business. 

The button-trade industry in China has been transitioning toward high-quality development. Yu Shangjing, Zhang's son, has taken over her business. 

Zhang and her family are beneficiaries of China's reform and opening up. Zhang believes self-employed individuals in Wenzhou will write a new chapter in the development of the city's private businesses in the new era. "‘Self-employed individual' remains a special title for me. Only in a great era will people make great achievements. Those who strive hard will head toward a bright future," says Zhang. 


Sources: China Women's News and Wenzhou Women's Federation

(Women of China English Monthly December 2023 issue)


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