Zhang Ruimin was born in Qingdao in January 1949. During the Cultural Revolution he was a ‘laosanjie’ – a student who graduated during the particularly turbulent late sixties period. He continued in his father’s shoes, working as a manual worker. He then served as team leader, workshop director, director, and vice-manager of Qingdao Home Appliances Company under the Second Bureau of Light Industry. In December 1984, he joined Qingdao Daily Appliance Plant– the predecessor of today’s Haier Group, where he served as Plant Director.
The main reasons why I had to come to Haier were that I was among the working class but that I had been through school education, the ‘red’ patriotic education. The focus of the education was that we must do something for the country, and must not be mediocre.
Of course, I never had an opportunity to do that. As a working class young man, what chances did I ever have? Let’s take the Cultural Revolution period as an example; the opportunities were either college or military service. Both of them needed someone to “open a back door” for you (obtain things through personal connections). In fact, at that time, even in a work unit you had to go through the back door to enjoy certain opportunities. But for me these were all impossible.
So when the Cultural Revolution led to the closure of the college, until I joined the factory, I had never thought I would be able to do anything at all. I really did not want to waste time, but I had no chances, so I studied mechanical manufacturing and the like by myself. In the factory I made some little technological innovations. What I had was time, I was able to borrow books and read a lot. At that time, I was reading a lot of reading biographies, for example, Napoleon, but I had no opportunities.
Then all of a sudden I joined the appliances company, not physically inside the factory. I really wanted to do something meaningful, but there was nothing I could do. I just went to work, read the newspaper, had meetings and so on. Even when I took a team to West Germany to introduce their technology and equipment to China, I did not think of coming to a refrigerator plant. But for this introduction project, I had to go to Beijing, run the project, and arrange foreign exchange. The plant was not in good condition at that time. No one was managing those things. I was the leader of a division of the appliances company. Slowly, I started to develop feelings about the place. The factory had changed leadership three times in three years. The previous leader did not want to do it anymore; he said that if we could not recruit more people, he would simply leave. Then he walked away. No one came. That was in 1984, and in May 1985 the equipment was ready to enter the plant. But after the German equipment was introduced, it was thrown into the yard and forgotten.
Anyway, I was not responsible for that. But, partly because I had some feelings about the place, and again because of my childhood education, I was ready to fight for the socialist cause. In my childhood, we shouted together that we were ready. It sounded like an empty slogan, but that was what we did every day. In fact, I really felt I wanted to do something for the country and our nation. I cannot say I was thinking about all those things at the time, but I did have some ideas.
When this equipment was thrown into the yard, even if it was not my responsibility, it was also a loss to the nation. In fact, at that time, newspapers often reported that in many places the imported equipment had been thrown away, and finally it turned into a pile of scrap metal. This kind of thing happened a lot, but no one was held responsible. So I looked into a number of potential candidates, who would come and who would not, but we really could not find anyone to come to the plant. Finally I said I would do it.
In fact, there was still a certain amount of risk in coming to the plant. My wages would be moved over from a stable job, so if I did not succeed, it would be like moving from a feast to a famine. At that time I was really scared, as I had concerns about my family. After setting things up, I called my wife on the telephone. I said I might go there, and that if I did not do well, I might well have to stay there, and that I would not be able to return. I had said I would not care. I had been a manual worker in the past, so if I had to be one again, that would be fine, I could do it. My wife was also rather open about it, saying that it did not matter; if I could not do well there, our little income was still enough to feed two people.
This is an edited extract from Haier Purpose by Hu Yong and Hao Yazhou now available from Thinkers50 and Infinite ideas.