Battling the odds to make the most of online life

By Li Li (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-01-07 07:35
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Internet opens door of commercial opportunity to rising number of disabled entrepreneurs. Li Li in Beijing reports.

Battling the odds to make the most of online life

Zhang Yuncheng (right) and his brother Zhang Yuncai update their online shop on Taobao, China's largest online marketplace. The shop sells a range of goods, from clothes to cosmetics. [Liu Zhe/China Daily]

Every day, Zhang Yuncheng is up at 9 am to run his online shop. He updates product information, responds to inquiries, checks deliveries and reads comments left by happy customers. And he does it all with just one finger.

The 30-year-old, who was born with progressive muscular atrophy, is completely paralyzed from the neck down apart from the middle finger of his right hand.

"My Internet shop keeps me busy," he said. "Without the Internet, I can't imagine what I would be doing now."

Zhang is one of about 10,000 disabled entrepreneurs who have registered stores with Taobao, China's largest online marketplace, since September 2009. A spokesman for the company estimated that the total number is much higher.

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"We've noticed an increasing number of disabled people working online," said Xu Junxing, editor of China Disabled Persons' Network, a popular website run by the China Disabled Persons' Federation. "The Internet is providing some big employment opportunities for them."

Zhang set up Pengcheng E Buy in 2005 with his brothers, Zhang Yunpeng, who also has progressive muscular atrophy, and Zhang Yuncai.

By controlling a mouse with his finger, Zhang Yuncheng uploads and arranges sales information and liaises with customers, while 34-year-old Yunpeng paints Chinese traditional prints with a brush in his mouth to sell online. Yuncai, 36, handles logistics, finding suppliers and purchasing goods.

The business is run from a two-bedroom apartment in north Beijing and sells anything from women's clothes and cosmetics to bubble wrap.

Since 2007, when monthly turnover surpassed 10,000 yuan ($1,500), the brothers have been doing a roaring trade. The store enjoys a 99.9 percent "good" rating from Taobao customers and is ranked "five diamonds", which means it has successfully completed 5,000 deals.

As well as revenue from the shop, which is now the main source of income for their family of six, the brothers also rake in extra money supervising a bulletin board for a popular virtual community.

Their success is a far cry from when they arrived in the capital from Northeast China's Heilongjiang province in 2004.

Battling the odds to make the most of online life

Yuncai originally attempted to juggle life as a full-time carer with odd menial jobs, such as working as a delivery boy and selling vegetables. Yet even spending a short time away from his two paralyzed brothers was proving potentially hazardous.

He recalled that Yunpeng once accidentally tilted his head and was forced to remain in an uncomfortable position for two hours until his brother returned home.

"I couldn't leave them at home by themselves, so we had to come up with a solution that didn't involve me going out," said Yuncai.

When a friend offered to teach them how to build and run an Internet shop on Taobao (the company also offers free technical support to disabled users), Zhang Yuncheng said he felt "a tickle in his heart".

Today the brothers are role models for millions. They frequently share their experiences with anyone who contacts them for advice and even help raise money for other disadvantaged groups.

One of Yunpeng's paintings was sold for 100,000 yuan at a charity sale to support victims of the snowstorms in 2008. The money went to a school for disabled children in Changsha, Hunan province.

Zhang Yuncheng was also given a special award to celebrate his business success in 2007 by Jack Ma, chief executive and chairman of Alibaba Group, which owns Taobao.

"The doctors told me people with progressive muscular atrophy only live to the age of 28, but look at us now," said Zhang Yuncheng, as he shared a smile with his elder brother.

With the power of the Internet, the brothers have been transformed from burdens into breadwinners, and Zhang Yuncheng said he hopes his story will inspire more people to help themselves. "The Internet can offer disadvantaged people more possibilities in life," he added.

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