“Sexiness is no light subject. The more closely you try to describe it, the more likely it gets twisted or becomes vulgar,” said Zhang Xiaomei, as she launched her latest book Sexiness Comes First for a Good Woman last month.
These days, Zhang finds herself dubbed “the Queen of Beauty Economics”, “Woman of Charm”, “Belle Boss” and “Tough Woman”, by the media, amongst other things. None of these titles seem to quite fit with her various roles as author, blogger, businesswoman, ex-military officer, lecturer, and above all Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) representative.
But this is how Zhang sets herself apart – she is definitely different, and makes sure her ‘originality’ is heard, loud and clear. Her experience in journalism has certainly helped her understand how to make that work.
At the CPPCC plenary season in March this year, she again found herself in the headlines for the kind of proposals she put forward, namely to create a ‘Love Your Breast Day’ to raise awareness of women’s health. More famously, she tabled a demand that wives be paid for doing housework.
There are less provocative ideas too, such as a proposal to set up a support fund for single mothers, and to include the teaching of etiquette in the school curriculum. While many of her proposals focus on the protection of women’s and children’s rights, they often touch on health, social and environmental issues. One of her ideas calls for a 6-hour work day and flexi-hours, another to make Christmas Day a public holiday (it currently isn’t) and she even suggests adopting international standards on animal rights.
All in all, Zhang put forward a total of 19 proposals to the CPPCC in March – and more than 100 proposals since becoming a CPPCC representative eight years ago. The CPPCC (see WiC52) consists of around 2,000 individuals chosen through a non-representative system of proposal and nomination, and includes leading academics, intellectuals, professionals and the occasional popular figure like Olympic hurdling champion Liu Xiang. It would actually be hard to find many representatives that would bother to put forward more than a handful of motions each year, especially since the CPPCC proposals aren’t legally binding and more often than not don’t become legislation.
But Zhang takes her CPPCC role very seriously and believes she is making a difference.
“Having been a representative for more than eight years, I have gathered quite a lot of experience and ideas. I always note down whatever thoughts that come to mind and turn it into a proposal… and all this could make some peoples’ lives meaningful, which is a good thing,” Zhang told Oriental Morning Post.
She puts the list of proposals on her blog, and invites feedback and discussion. She also has a Twitter-like micro-blog, where she posts comments regularly, something she finds “rather fun”.
Outside the ‘two session’ plenary season in March, her blogs are filled with articles and comments on areas of interest that echo the issues she reflects in her proposals.
“A proposal can come from any individual CPPCC member… The different backgrounds, ages and professions of the members bring a broad perspective into the house. This is why, after so many years as a member, I have come to realise the need to bring forward-looking, wide-ranging yet more detailed proposals to the table,” she told Yanzhao Metropolis Daily.
At least one of Zhang’s suggestions from this year seems to have been taken on board. In April, the Beijing municipal government moved back the office hours for some of its offices and organisations (which covers a huge work force of 810,000 people) by 30 minutes to 9-to-6 so as to relieve congestion around the peak hours. The Beijing Youth Daily reported that there has been a small, albeit positive, impact on traffic conditions from this measure.
She’s come far. Born to a military family in Beijing in 1963, Zhang grew up in Sichuan surrounded by families of a modest background. She joined the military herself at around 15, and worked in scientific research. When she left the military in her twenties, she was a vice-commander of a battalion. She headed to Hong Kong to work as a reporter, and eventually became deputy editor.
Despite finding success in journalism, Zhang moved back to Sichuan in 1989. She had little savings but a clear determination to be her own boss. She spent just over Rmb1,000 on two chairs, two mirrors and some basic tools, and started a beauty business in a tiny shop in Chengdu.
“I didn’t think much at the time apart from wanting to run my own business. The entry barriers for becoming a beautician were relatively low; the capital and technical requirements weren’t too demanding. I told myself, being a cultured person, surely I should be able to do better at this than others,” Zhang recalled.
Through hard work, Zhang expanded her business, and by 1994, she was running the biggest beauty parlour in southwest China – including a training school for beauticians. She now has hundreds of franchises across China. Through all this, she still found time to acquire an MBA from Sichuan University, and even studied in California.
In 1999, Zhang set up a publication in Chengdu, called Beauty and Fashion Journal. In 2003, she moved the publication to Beijing and renamed it China Beauty & Fashion. The weekly now has a circulation of 400,000 copies and also sells in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US.
While Zhang champions causes related to women, she insists she believes in the equality of both sexes.
“I love men, and I don’t think that men are cow dung and only women should run the world,” she told Southern Metropolis Weekly.
Because of her outspokenness and the quirky proposals she puts forward, especially the one that calls for remuneration for housework, she has been accused of being ‘boisterous,’ and ‘exploitative’.
But Zhang clarified that she wasn’t advocating that husbands pay their wives for staying at home. She explained that the proposition of putting a value on housework would bring more recognition to women’s contribution to households, especially in rocky economic times.
“There is no need to become boisterous… or exploitative. People in my field know me well enough. Those who are sensible would say, ‘She’s a wise, learned person’. I am not into politics and am not pursuing a political career, therefore it is unnecessary for me take that route,” she responded in an interview with Oriental Morning Post.
Detractors aside, Zhang at least tries to promotes awareness of social issues – a quality that differentiates her from many in the business elite. She offers some hope that China might eventually become a more pluralistic society.
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