When Zhang Tingzhen was told she would be attending the 16th Communist Party Congress, she wasted no time in preparing the Miao minority costume worn in her village, Yanjiao, in the mountainous province of Guizhou. And she had no regrets at the cost of the elaborate preparations - two years of her income. The silver headdress, which weighs 1.5kg, and the hand-embroidered, richly decorated robe cost 20,000 yuan (HK$18,876) - 15 times the average annual income of her fellow villagers. Ms Zhang, 54, a party secretary, says it was worth it. 'It took me six months to finish it and I did the embroidery myself,' she says. 'It cost me my savings for many years, but I won't regret it because this is a once in a lifetime event.' Walking up the grand staircase of the Great Hall of People in Beijing before the opening ceremony, wrapped in about 8kg of costume, Ms Zhang brightened up a sea of delegates in grey suits. She was chased by a hungry flock of photographers and TV crews and helped present an image the authorities love to see - harmony between ethnic groups and a 'democracy' that does not exclude grass-root cadres on important occasions. But Ms Zhang believes she is more than just decoration. She is determined to make the voice of her villagers heard, for instance by telling the country's leaders that more subsidies are needed for farmers taking part in a forest restoration project. In the programme to convert farmland into forest, which was launched by Premier Zhu Rongji, farmers were given subsidies for eight years after they handed over their farms to grow trees. 'But after eight years, we cannot ask the masses to starve,' Ms Zhang insists. Her strong will is probably the secret of her success. In 1984, Ms Zhang sold her Miao costume to a Western tourist for 500 yuan. In the same year, she left her youngest son, who was then two, at home and travelled to Guangzhou, Suzhou in Jiangsu and Shanghai to sell her embroidery. 'At first when that Western tourist asked to buy our costumes, others were reluctant to sell the clothes they were wearing. My family was poor and I decided to sell it to him. 'I was not afraid [to travel alone] . . . I contacted the distributors of handicraft products in Shanghai and Suzhou . . . I was forced to do so because of the hard living conditions.' And that was how Ms Zhang became the richest person in her village. In the following years, she took her fellow villagers with her to the big cities. 'The villagers came to borrow money from me after I became rich. I could not take care of them on my own, so I decided to take them with me.' Hundreds have followed in her footsteps. 'At first many of them did not even know how to speak Putonghua and I had to teach them,' explains Ms Zhang, who was the first person in her village to attend high school in the 1960s. In stark contrast to the conventional image of grass-root cadres, Ms Zhang is well-travelled and articulate. Two years ago she was given a model worker award and attended a national conference in Beijing. Last year she was elected party secretary in her village, succeeding her husband who had held the post for more than 20 years. 'My husband is an honest person, but somehow he cannot keep up with the times. 'When they [the party committee] first nominated me, I was a bit worried because I had not discussed it with my husband. Then I told him I would do a better job than he did, and he later agreed.' In just one year, Ms Zhang demonstrated her sophisticated negotiation skills and convinced the county government to fund a project to provide tap water to the village. 'My husband used to say we should be self-sufficient. But that does not work. We should ask for assistance from outside [governments from upper levels] so that the projects can kick-start.' Ms Zhang believes her determination will enable her to overcome red tape and bring more benefits to her village. 'I want to meet up with the minister of water resources and the minister of agriculture. But I have not heard from them yet.' She is hoping the ministers can help to restore a damaged river dam and farmland destroyed by flooding - and she is keeping her fingers crossed.