Dressed simply and in light make-up, Zhang Surong looks no different from other women her age.
The only difference is that, eight years after being laid off from a State-owned enterprise, Zhang now owns four firms and possesses a personal fortune of nearly 40 million yuan (US$4.8 million).
Born in 1950, the year after the founding of New China, Zhang once worked in the countryside as other people of her age. Before she was laid off in 1996, Zhang had worked for the railway station of the city of Anshan in Liaoning Province, Northeast China, for 17 years.
"I felt very bad for the sudden loss of the 'iron rice bowl,'" said Zhang.
"Iron rice bowl" is Chinese slang referring to the traditional cradle-to-grave social security once provided by China's State-owned enterprises.
But she did not cry at home like some of her peers.
"I think when one door closes to you, another one opens," Zhang said.
Zhang is one of the millions of Chinese workers who were laid off from State-owned companies in the 1990s when the building of a market economy was in full swing in China.
Many surplus workers were laid off to improve the economic returns of State-owned businesses. In return, the government gave laid-off workers and other unemployed people preferential treatment in seeking new jobs and in setting up their own businesses, including tax reductions or exemptions.
As it pushed forward the reforms, the government promoted tertiary industries, such as catering, trade, retail sales and tourism, creating more job opportunities.
Zhang started her first business - a wholesaler of sugar and liquor -in 1996, the year she was laid off. The business failed several months later due, she says, to her lack of experience. Zhang lost close to 10,000 yuan (US$1,200).
Not admitting defeat, Zhang began her second business interior decoration and installation with an investment of nearly 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) in 1997. When she completed her first contracted project laying floor bricks for a restaurant she earned more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,200), the first "barrel of gold" she dug from the "sea of businesses." That success prompted her to take bold steps to expand.
In 1998, Zhang set up Anshan Huaxia Building Installation Co Ltd and Anshan Huaxia Building Decoration Co Ltd, employing about 1,000 workers. She contracted a dozen projects in Anshan, a major steel production base once called China's "steel capital."
Zhang attributed her success to the good government policies and support given by people of all social sectors.
"I earnestly hope that I can do something for them," Zhang said.
Zhang established Anshan Huaxia Jinguo (Women) Community Services Company in 2002, with subsidiaries scattered in some 280 of Anshan's 320 communities. Zhang's service company employs more than 2,100 laid-off women workers, most of whom are in their forties and fifties, the group which faces great difficulties in seeking a new job.
Liu Liwei, who was laid off from Anshan Tieta Plant, now works at one of the subsidiaries of Zhang's services company.
"I was grateful to Zhang for giving me the job," she said, though the monthly pay is only 400 yuan (US$48).
"I was 46 years old when I was laid off, and many of my friends said that I was risking my life going into business," Zhang recalled. "For years, I never noticed holidays, even the Spring Festival or the Mid-Autumn Festival, the traditional Chinese festivals of family reunion."
"I just tried to make my businesses successful so that I could help more people," she said.
Zhang spent more than 2 million yuan (US$240,000) to build a home for elderly people. Running the home costs her 200,000 yuan (US$24,000) each month since she only charges 400 yuan (US$48) per person monthly. Meanwhile, she finances nine students at a vocational school in Anshan.
The Chinese Government attaches great importance to re-employment of laid-off workers and other unemployed people in the country, having created more than 80 million job opportunities since 1994.
This year, China set out to create 9 million new jobs and help 5 million laid-off workers find new jobs.
Zhang also has more goals this year: To further expand her existing businesses, to start a food processing business and to increase the number of her employees all laid-off workers to 5,000.
"I'll continue to work so long as I am able, because behind me are several thousand laid-off workers," Zhang said. "I'll not only help them find jobs, I'll also try to help them start their own businesses."
(China Daily October 25, 2004)