Lao Zhou, 56, left the People's Liberation Army and became a barber on the streets of Beijing. Although he has been a member of the Communist Party for 36 years, he turned down the chance to become a government official. He tells of his ups and downs and the party's corruption problem. Where did you learn to give haircuts? I learned in 1973, the second year of my four-year stay in the army. That year, I was promoted to squad head in a platoon, and routinely it's the duty of the squad head to cut the soldiers' hair. So I went to my lieutenant, and he taught me everything he knew. How many hairstyles can you do? Only two, either a crew cut or a flat top - just as I did with my soldiers. That's why almost all my customers are old men. They basically do not care about the style I give them. How much do you charge for a haircut? Two yuan [HK$2.27]. Isn't that too cheap? Yeah, it's a bit cheap. But I cannot raise the price. The vast majority of my customers are retirees and jobless old men. They don't have much money either. If I raised the price, they wouldn't come any more. When did you join the Communist Party? In the same year I became the squad head and started to cut my men's hair. At that time in the army, it wasn't difficult to become a party member. As long as you worked hard in drills, treated your comrades well and, most important, submitted your application over and over, you would be allowed in. Why did you join the party? Was it because you had faith in communism? Not really. Many of the men were applying to become a member, and I just followed. To be frank, I did not really understand what communism was. At that time, a world under communism sounded like the heaven my granny told me about in her trite folk stories, which were beautiful but hard to believe. How about now? Do you believe in communism now? Come on, that is a stupid question. Where are your combat comrades now? Some became officials in county or prefecture governments, and most are leading a life as ordinary as mine. It is said that a demobilised soldier with a party membership has many opportunities to be appointed a government official. Why did you not take up the opportunity? Because of my silliness. The party offered me a post in a village government to head a contingent of civil militia, which would have required me to leave my hometown again and be unable to see my mother every day. You know, after four years in the army, I missed my mum very much and wanted to look after her. So I turned down the opportunity. If I hadn't, I would be at least a county governor by now. Believe it or not, I was quite handsome and smart when I was young, and would have had many chances at promotion. But how did you become a street barber? After rejecting the village government post, the party gave me another job in a semi-state-owned barbershop. But the barbershop closed in 1979 when the party announced the start of reform and opening-up. So I set up a barber's pole on the street and have been self-employed until today. Didn't you ever think of opening your own barbershop? I had a small barbershop in my hometown in Hebei province. But two years ago, my hypertension got serious and I could not work long hours each day. So my wife and I came to Beijing to stay with my elder son. I wanted to do something for my son to relieve his financial burdens, and a barbershop did not look feasible because I have to rest at home from time to time. Therefore, I just use a corner along the street and my business hours are up to the weather and my health. Do you regret missing the chance to become a government official? No. It's true that I do not have free medical care or health insurance. I don't have people's courtesy towards me, and I earn low wages every day. But looking at those living in the countryside and migrant workers, their life is far worse than mine. More important, I have two sons, and both have had a university education, and are very kind and respectful to my wife and me. They have promised to take good care of us in our later years. Thank God - this is already enough. Do you hate the corruption in your party? I do, but I feel helpless. I don't understand why those officials want so much - they have big cars, spacious houses, good salaries and people's respect, but this doesn't seem enough for them. Why? What should the party do? If the party really tries everything, it may be able to check it somehow and not let it run out of control. But if the party wants to root it out completely, it's impossible. When every powerful person tries to rake in money for himself, how can you wipe it out? Do you think the party will lose power soon? I don't think so. It seems that no other parties are really powerful enough to replace it. People may be discontented with the Communist Party, but there are no clear signs of it being overthrown any time soon.