Page last updated at 14:41 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 15:41 UK

China's reluctant first entrepreneur

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Wenzhou

Zhang Hua Mei with her buttons
Zhang Hua Mei said having your own business used to be shameful

Imagine how much courage it takes to set up a market stall outside your house, knowing that the authorities could come along and arrest you for doing just that, starting your own private business.

That was the risk China's first entrepreneurs faced when they took tentative steps towards establishing their own businesses three decades ago in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

Now of course those pioneers have helped to create a capitalist style system in the world's most populous communist country.

In Wenzhou, a city in eastern China, the woman who was right at the start of all this still owns her own business selling buttons at home and abroad.

They call Zhang Hua Mei the country's first entrepreneur.

She is smartly dressed and settles down to talk about those first difficult days back in the late seventies at a table in the middle of her shop, next to cabinets filled with different types of buttons.

In a stockroom at the back of the shop one of her staff is using what looks like a giant colander to sort buttons.

It sounds like a huge baby's rattle as the buttons are swilled around the tub so that the smaller ones fall through the holes.

Lucky escape

Mrs Zhang makes a comfortable living these days, not bad for a woman who started off selling knickknacks on a small table outside her front door 30 years ago.

Zhang Hua Mei's licence
Zhang Hua Mei still has the licence which made her work legal

"At that time working for yourself was very shameful," she explains.

"The country didn't allow us to do business. Here in Wenzhou there was a government office whose job it was to crack down on illegal companies.

"I had to be very cautious."

Eventually the local officials found her. But she was lucky.

It turned out Wenzhou had been chosen as a place to trial China's new policy of economic reforms.

"The comrades from the commerce and industry bureau came to my store and told me that I had to apply for a licence," she says.

"My father told me I had no choice. And once I received it of course my business was legal."

She still has the licence. In one corner there is a tiny black and white photo of her, a shy looking girl, who unbeknown to her at the time, was given licence number one in all of China, making her the country's first entrepreneur.

The date on the certificate: 30 November 1979.

"I only found out I was the first five years ago," she says.

"The city government sent me with a copy of the certificate to Beijing for a ceremony.

"When I look at this picture on the licence, I feel my life was very hard at that time, but I remember I was very happy when the licence arrived."

Born entrepreneurs

Today, the city where Mrs Zhang started her business is one of the richest in the country.

Xu Yunxu
We are very good at creating and sharing good fortune
Xu Yunxu

She was, she admits, a reluctant pioneer but she and others like her helped to pave the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs in Wenzhou who have made a mint.

Across town in a huge workshop, where rows of migrant workers sit hunched over sewing machines making shirts, 36-year-old Xu Yunxu is busy making millions of dollars.

She acknowledges her generation's debt to those who came before them, but argues that these days it is much harder to build a business as she has done.

"Thirty years ago," she says "that woman who got the first licence depended more on her courage and her ability to work hard to do well.

"Since the turn of the century competition has become much more fierce. You really have to be clever to succeed."

Some Chinese are jealous of the entrepreneurs of Wenzhou, whose success in business is arguably unmatched by any other city in China.

Xu Yunxu does not dispute the suggestion that the people in her city are China's most effective salesmen.

Xu Yunxu's factory in Wenzhou
Xu Yunxu's factory has provided work for migrant workers

"It is said that people born here are born businessmen.

"We are very good at creating and sharing good fortune. We are as generous as the Spanish, as elegant as the British and the Germans," she says.

But the rest of China, and the rest of the world, benefits from Wenzhou's success she insists.

"We share our good fortune around because we buy a lot."

As China's economy appears to be powering forward again there will be more opportunities for the country's most entrepreneurial region.

And, of course, for China's number one entrepreneur Mrs Zhang, who has ridden out the global turndown and is still optimistic about the prospects for her business.

"Don't forget," she tells visitors, "people will always need buttons".

Print Sponsor

Migrant workers shun China's factories
26 Mar 10 |  Asia-Pacific
China's factories 'lack workers'
22 Feb 10 |  Business
In Pictures: China's changing economy
14 Feb 11 |  Business
China country profile
09 Aug 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific