Chinese legislator Liu Li relaxes at the end of a busy day by soaking her feet, a simple habit which reminds her of the days when she worked as a foot masseuse.
Liu has never concealed her humble beginning of working as a migrant worker. In fact, the 38-year-old feels privileged to speak for the 286-million-strong group at the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, which opened earlier this week in Beijing.
"We must provide migrant workers with equal opportunities to achieve their dreams in the cities," she said, adding "the well-being of farmers and the development of rural areas must not be overlooked in the process of urbanization."
Liu is one of the 742 female deputies to the 13th NPC working hard on Women's Day, which falls on March 8 and usually coincides with the country's two biggest annual political meetings.
"THE MOST BEAUTIFUL FOOT MASSEUSE IN CHINA"
Liu has a rags to riches story that has touched hearts across the country, not because of how much money she earned but how much she gave away.
Unlike philanthropists who lavish money on charities, Liu donated from her meager migrant worker income to sponsor poor children to return to school.
Born in a poor rural family in east China's Anhui Province, Liu quit primary school at the age of 14 and worked to support the schooling of her four siblings, a common practice at that time in rural China. ( Leaving home penniless, she worked as a waitress and then a nanny before finding the job as an apprentice in a foot massage center in Xiamen, east China's Fujian Province.
It was hard work, causing blisters and enlarged knuckles on her hands. But she loved it, as she felt the job was similar to her childhood dream of working as a traditional Chinese medicine doctor.
Although she received little formal education, she yearned to learn more. She developed the habit of reading at least two pages a day.
"I always find her reading in her office when I leave after night shifts," said Zhang Ning, a young masseuse.
"I have loved reading since I was a child," Liu said. "I remember my mom always scolded me for forgetting to turn off the kerosene lamp at night."
This explains why the keen learner wanted to help poor students. In 2000, Liu began to donate a sixth of her 36,000-yuan (about 5,600 U.S. dollars) annual income to some 50 children living in remote villages, giving them a chance to realize the college dream she never achieved.
Her goodwill made her a national celebrity. She was called "the most beautiful foot masseuse in China" and eventually earned the public's trust to become a spokesperson for the migrant workers and the rural population in China's top legislature body.
In 2012, Liu was elected a deputy to the local legislature in Xiamen and became an NPC deputy in 2013. Her name was once again on the NPC deputy list in February 2018.
Unlike legislators in the West who make a career of politics, NPC deputies work part-time and many of them are ordinary citizens from all walks of life, including farmers, factory workers, craftsmen, and even street cleaners.
As a migrant worker and a national legislator, Liu said she shoulders greater responsibility to represent grassroots' voices.
When she took up the post in 2013, she submitted motions concerning the schooling of migrant workers' children, and integration of urban and rural health insurance.
She also called for solutions to social problems such as increasing rates of divorce and extramarital affairs in rural areas due married couples living apart as migrant workers.
Her concerns were addressed by the NPC. She was later informed of the measures that had already been taken and those soon to be adopted.
The next year, she called for more protection and better welfare for older migrant workers as they are more likely to encounter labor rights abuse due to age issues and poor educational background.
As a national legislator, Liu is very diligent. She receives phone calls and messages from fellow migrant workers. When the NPC is not in session, she visits their homes and collects their opinions online. She also listens to comments on society from her clients who come from all walks of life.
"People asked me to convey their messages to the NPC session," she said, adding "I hope more attention will be given to migrant workers and their living standards through my endeavors."
AN ENTREPRENEUR, A PHILANTHROPIST
Liu established her own massage company in 2014, "with the aim to attract more investors for the charities and help more people," she said.
As a rule, a quarter of the company's annual profit is put aside as a charity fund, which has sponsored schooling of more than 1,000 children.
The company is now funded by more than 70 investors, who can take back their share from the profit, while the rest of the profit is used to help poor families.
"When we have 100 investors, each investing 50,000 yuan, the profit of one branch can help a whole poverty-stricken village," she said. "It is not practical to ask people for donations, instead I can now support charities with my business."
In spare time, Liu also encourages her employers to provide foot massages for the elderly in local nursing homes.
When some people suggested she does charity work as a publicity stunt for her business, her employees felt offended.
"I always get angry when someone questions her motives," said Zhang.
Zhang has a strong reason to defend her boss. "She treats us like family and cares about us, and has given us every opportunity we needed," said Zhang, who now earns 10,000 a month.
She remembers when Liu took her to a training program in Guangzhou, south China. "It was my first time travelling in a plane. Only then did I realize the world was so big."
Liu admits that she's not good at business management, so she leaves it to the professionals and focuses on massage techniques.
Liu's company has four branches and she aims to open ten more this year. She even wants to build a primary school for poor students.
"I cried like a baby when I gave up school and left home at the age of 14," she said. "At that time, I was determined to help every poor student to go to school. I will do it, even if it will take me a lifetime."