Risking the danger of being exposed to marsh gas, Zhang Xizhong works
in a septic tank. Photos by Li Gang / for China Daily
Zhang works on cleaning an underground pipe.
Zhang trains his staff on making a millitary-style bed.
Zhang works in a bilge well.
METRO's Li Jiabao reports on a veteran who is mopping up the image of Henan people with his cleaning career
While most people look for a job that commands power and respect, Zhang Xizhong has kept his outlook down-to-earth by starting an "underground" career as a sewage system worker.
The middle-aged man who retired from the army more than two decades ago still considers himself a soldier.
He is the manager of a cleaning company that drains water and sewage systems. Called the Senior Soldier Cleaning Center, it has 22 workers, of which 12 are retired soldiers, and seven vacuum sweepers worth more than 800,000 yuan.
His business deals not only with communities but also the buildings of the Central Military Commission, as well as Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters of the Chinese government.
"Not everyone can get into Zhongnanhai, but I did," Zhang said with a smile.
He might have climbed a mountain in his career, but Zhang never forgets that he started at the absolute bottom - as a peasant in a poor village in Henan province.
His six-year career in the army washed off some of the village dust and carried him into the Communist Party, but in 1984, Zhang retired and once again became a peasant.
This time, however, Zhang took affirmative action and built a brick factory.
It brought revenue of 100,000
yuan in the first year alone, considered big money during the first decade of the reform and opening-up policy.
But while villagers admired his success, Zhang did an about-face and returned to Beijing in 1987.
"I missed the army life - the military cap, the badge and the uniform. They were fond memories," Zhang said.
What he didn't predict was a string of dead-end laboring jobs on building sites, roads and farms. Finally,
he began his cleaning career in 2000.
"My first impression of Zhang was of a man dressed in a shabby uniform, with even more shabby-looking army boots and an excessively shabby cleaning cart," said Li Anshan, leader of Dongyingfang community in northwestern Beijing's Haidian district.
"Then, I found out he was from Henan province, which made my impression even worse because Henan people have a bad reputation across the country," Li said.
But when the community's septic tank stopped working, Li turned to Zhang for help.
The former soldier took the job and, though he knew it was offered without pay, cleaned the tank spotless. His devotion altered Li's perspective.
"He changed my prejudice of Henan people and I began introducing him to neighboring communities and local companies," Li said.
With the help of the local community leader, Zhang finally got his business on track.
"Zhang is kind. He never turns down requests for help from the neighborhoods and always does the job for free," Li Zhenrong, a 76-year old woman of a local community told Henan Daily.
It has become an unwritten rule for Zhang's company to offer free work to seniors and the poor.
He even takes the phrase "going beyond the call of duty" to a literal sense, by providing rescue services.
On the second day after the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, Zhang led a team to the quake-hit area and saved six people.
He then guarded safes at a partially-damaged Credit Union in Sichuan's Muyu town, which won him a military salute from the leader of a Malaysian rescue team.
A driving force behind his hard work is a heartfelt need to promote his home province and change public mistrust.
"My determination has helped to change the prejudice of all Henan people," Zhang said.
And his wife has also finally fallen in line with his business strategy.
"I could not understand why he started such a dirty and exhausting career," Zhang's wife, Duan Wenfang, said. "We argued a lot to begin
with, but now the company is doing better, I am satisfied."
Zhang plans to recruit another 20 retired soldiers by the end of this year to help solve the employment headache.
He believes his center will be a second camp for them.