Zhou Xiaoguang, 52, is called the "Queen of custom jewellery". Forbes business magazine values her jewellery empire, NeoGlory Holdings Group, and other businesses, based in the "China Commodity City" in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, at US$1.3billion. She believes entrepreneurs can have an influence on policymaking. Zhou was dubbed the "Goddess of motions" for filing 265 of them while serving as a deputy to the 10th and 11thNational People's Congress (NPC). Of those motions, 223 were adopted by the NPC. She said one of her motions adopted by the government was to make Yiwu China's 10th special economic zone. But, after she resigned as NPC deputy, her voice, she says, "became feeble".
What motivated you as a deputy and what impact did you have?
China's economy has developed rapidly within an incomplete business environment. There is robust manufacturing and trade in the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone. We are at the frontier of international trade when making and selling products to different countries. We tend to face many new obstacles and challenges. If we can clear these business obstacles, and pave the way for newcomers to avoid potential risks, then we will have contributed to a more advanced and stable business environment. That's our responsibility as business owners in the region. For the past decade, many ideas for my motions came from observing and listening to people. An NPC deputy is a messenger of the people. It was meaningful to be involved in national legislation and policymaking that improves society.
Since you resigned from the NPC, do you still contribute, and how?
I am still a deputy to the People's Congress in Yiwu, a co-chair of the city's women's federation, and hold several positions in local official and private organisations. I maintain close relationships with other entrepreneurs and Yiwu People's Congress deputies through meetings, social networks or over the phone. We propose ideas and suggestions related to financial and social reform. If I think of a strong motion or suggestion, I ask other NPC deputies I know to merge my suggestions with their motions. But I don't do as much field research as before, which was required when I made my own a motions as a NPC deputy. I miss those days when I could have direct conversations with leaders such as President Xi Jinping and NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang at the "two sessions".
How different does it feel to be no longer an NPC deputy?
My biggest regret is that I've lost the direct channel to communicate with top leaders in the NPC, CPPCC, and the ministries. It is like I've lost my voice. Before me, there had been no NPC deputies from here for decades. The problem now is Yiwu is the biggest manufacturer of small commodities in the world, but does not have even one NPC deputy or CPPCC delegate to represent its two million-strong population; Yiwu is now cut off from direct dialogue policymakers. The city faces a delicate time right now: we've just finished three years of experimental trade reforms and want to present the lessons we've learned to advise leaders on reform. But it's difficult to do.
Why did you propose reducing the numbers of NPC deputies?
Being a NPC deputy for a decade, I never stopped thinking of ways that the NPC could reform its structure to make its work more efficient, and ensure people's opinions are heard and deputies' motions are well handled. The entire body of 2,894 deputies meets for only two weeks a year. So many people must discuss thousands of motions in such a short time. Obviously, it's difficult to fully reflect the public's opinions and reveal details of all the motions. When these different opinions and motions are not properly dealt with, they might ferment social problems. I think that systematic reform of the NPC, such as decreasing the number deputies, would improve its operation. Part-time deputies could be withdrawn, while others could specialise.
How different are the deputies? How outspoken are they?
I represent a type of entrepreneur in the Yangtze River Delta Economic Zone, including Shanghai municipality along with Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The region is supported by a market-based economy with more transparent rules. In Zhejiang, for example, there are many thousands of private businesses. The market is vital for business owners; the regional business culture is unique. They need to look for markets, instead of lobbying local officials. They are more outspoken, because by pointing out the challenges their enterprises will face is being responsible for their future development. I think the regional business culture is very different from inland areas, where enterprises need to go through many administrative procedures to operate. Inland business owners tend not to be as outspoken as we are. I want to say that it's a real privilege to sit on the NPC, so one should use every chance to offer meaningful suggestions and motions to rather than mere empty words.
Is there any regional issue you would like to promote the most?
Yiwu 's economy has developed under the "thousands of family manufacturers" model. Private business is its strength. But Yiwu's small and scattered operating scale also makes its economy vulnerable. Small- and medium-sized enterprises account for 98 per cent of the city's economy; their deposits in local banks are enormous, yet they have difficulty getting loans. This lack of financing has hampered the stability of local enterprises and healthy development, but is urgent: private capital and localised financial institutions cannot meet demand. During the "two sessions" in 2009, I handed then-premier Wen Jiabao a motion to form an experimental international trade zone in Yiwu. In March 2011, the central government approved it, and launched comprehensive reform of international trade in Yiwu. I'm now proposing that the government allows private capital to enter Yiwu to provide local enterprises with financial services. This could prevent potential financial risks for our enterprises and promote local economic restructuring. It is both necessary and feasible.