Wu Yi

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Wu Yi

Wu Yi (born 1938) is known as China's "Iron Lady," a nickname that accurately captures the toughness she has exhibited over a career that covers 30 years in the petroleum industry and nearly as many in the rough–and–tumble world of Chinese politics. She is the sole female member of China's ruling Politburo, and the only woman ever to rise to such heights in the Chinese government without being married to an even higher ranking official.

Wu, widely regarded as one of the most powerful women in the world, captured the attention of American's and others in the West through her spirited negotiations with American representatives Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky dealing with intellectual property, trade relations between China and the United States, and a host of other issues central to China's role in the global economy. Mao Tse–tung once said that women "hold up half the sky." While women remain woefully underrepresented in the highest levels of Chinese industry and government, the formidable Wu may be capable of holding up her gender's half of the sky single–handedly, at least in the estimation of those who have sat across from her at the bargaining table.

Entered Male – Dominated Oil Industry

Wu Yi was born into a family of intellectuals in 1938, in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China. Her upbringing was fairly modest, and Wuhan was quite distant from the center of Chinese power in Beijing. In a culture that has not historically valued education for girls, Wu was one of only a handful of young women to attend the Beijing Petroleum Institute. She graduated from the Institute in 1962 with a degree in engineering. She began her career as a technician at the remote Lanzhou Oil Refinery in the Gansu Province. From that humble beginning, there was no looking back. Over the next four decades, Wu rose rapidly through the ranks in the male–dominated petroleum industry and the equally boys–clubby Communist Party.

In 1965 Wu moved over to the Production and Technology Department of the Ministry of Petroleum, where she worked as a technician for three years. She left that post in 1967 and went to work as a technician at the Beijing Dongfanghong Refinery. It was here that Wu's meteoric rise in the petroleum industry truly began. Over the next 15 years, Wu climbed the ladder from technician to technology section chief, deputy chief engineer, and finally deputy director of the refinery. In 1983 Wu was named deputy manager, and more importantly Communist Party secretary, of the Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation, a position she held until 1988.

That was the year Wu charged full–steam into the political realm. She was named vice mayor of Beijing. Her chief responsibility in the position was the city's industrial development and foreign trade endeavors. Wu also became an alternate member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party—the very core of political power in China—at that time.

Helped Smooth Relations After Tiananmen

While Wu seemed to be a natural at the game of politics, she did not initially plan to make it a career. "In my youth, I never developed a desire to enter politics," Wu was quoted as saying in a January 2000 profile on China Online. "My biggest wish was to become a great entrepreneur. In an enterprise, you can develop your own thinking." Nevertheless, so obvious was her talent for both tough haggling and the subtleties of international trade that she quickly became a rising star in the Party. Colleagues saw her as possessing an ideal combination of characteristics rare in Chinese politics: stubborn bull–headedness tempered with a quick wit and forthright manner. "To her friends, she is very nice and enthusiastic," Lin Shipei, Wu's former student adviser from her university days, was quoted as saying in an April 2004 Business Week article. "To her opponents, she is hard like iron."

In 1990 Wu made two visits to the United States, representing the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, a government–run agency charged with improving China's position in the global economy. The U.S. trips took place not long after the deadly suppression of pro–democracy demonstrators on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, and the visits were widely interpreted as early attempts to heal some of the resulting damage to U.S.–Chinese relations.

Wu's performance in these high–level meetings led Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to appoint her as Vice Minister of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade, as well as Deputy Secretary of the ministry's Leading Party Members' Group, in 1991. If there was anybody involved in international trade bargaining who had not yet heard of Wu, this was the position that drew their attention. She became well known for her ability to defuse tense situations with her cutting humor. One frequently cited example of this arose when U.S. negotiators were hounding the Chinese about the prevalence of pirated music and software. Wu responded by pointing out that American museums were full of cultural treasures that had been plundered from China over the centuries.

Named to Communist Party's Central Committee

Two years later, she was elevated to the top spot in each of those bureaucracies—Minister of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade, and Secretary of the Leading Party Members' Group. Meanwhile, she became a full member of the Community Party's Central Committee in 1992. Wu was in the news repeatedly over the next couple years, as trade frictions between China and the United States reached critical heights. She received rave reviews from Party bigwigs for her handling of negotiations with Clinton Administration trade representatives Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky. Barshefsky was quick to note that despite Wu's "Iron Lady" reputation, she had a soft side as well. Remembering a hand–dyed scarf Wu had picked out as a gift while the two were hashing out the terms of China's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Barshefsky remarked in a 2004 Business Week article, "She can be tough as nails across the table, and then she does something quite thoughtful."

In 1997 Wu was named to another term on the Central Committee of the Communist Party. She also became an alternate in the 22–member Politburo, the very pinnacle of political power in China. The following year, her close ties to Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji contributed to her promotion to the post of State Councilor—one of five in the entire Chinese government—a position just below Vice Premier, making her the most powerful woman in Chinese politics. Zhu's appointment put Wu at the very top of China's foreign trade bureaucracy. Among her responsibilities was oversight of the sensitive negotiations surrounding China's admission to the WTO. Her portfolio also included Industry and State–Owned Enterprises (though Zhu retained personal control for some policy–making pertaining to SOEs), and she was active in government efforts to promote economic development in China's hinterlands. She also played a lead role in China's efforts to improve the county's cooperation with international intellectual property standards; promote the growth of high–tech exports; encourage more foreign investment; and encourage Chinese firms to invest in assembly plants overseas. In 1999 Wu was credited with hammering out five trade agreements with Russia.

Wu was made a full–blown member of the Politburo in 2002, and in March of 2003 she was appointed Vice Premier of the State Council. A month later, in the midst of China's SARS crisis, Wu was named Minister of Health. She replaced Zhang Wenkang, who was ousted for his perceived poor performance in controlling the spread of SARS. Zhang had, in fact, denied for months that an epidemic existed. As Health Minister, Wu sought to usher in a new era of openness and transparency regarding health information in China. By this time, she was regarded by many as the nation's most beloved politician; some peasants, according to Time magazine, even believe she is a reincarnation of Kwanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The new transparency has not gone unnoticed. "She told me things she didn't have to because she values openness," Time quoted Henk Bekedam, China representative for the World Health Organization, as saying. Wu has also changed China's policy with regard to AIDS. While Chinese health officials have for years denied that AIDS was a problem there, under Wu the Ministry admitted that AIDS in China had reached epidemic status. Wu went so far as to meet one–on–one with Gao Yaojie, a retired country doctor and China's leading AIDS activist.

Negotiated Deals on Piracy, Protectionism

As tensions between China and the United States on global trade issues escalated once in early 2004, Wu was again in the news. The annual meeting of the U.S.–China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, previously handled by lower–level bureaucrats, was elevated to a higher status that year in the wake of a complaint filed by the United States with the World Trade Organization alleging that China was engaging in unfair protectionist practices in the semiconductor industry. There was also a great deal of grumbling about ongoing piracy in China of a huge range of products, from auto parts to impotence drugs. The talks also covered U.S. concerns that Chinese currency was undervalued, putting Chinese firms in an unfairly advantageous position over foreign competitors. Yet another point of contention for the U.S. was that Chinese companies foster abusive labor conditions, which in turn hurts American companies that must pay much more for U.S. labor. When Beijing announced that Wu would be leading the Chinese delegation, the White House responded by naming Commerce Secretary Donald Evans to head the U.S. team.

At these April 2004 meetings, Wu and her team made numerous promises and concessions, signally Beijing's desire to soften its position on global commerce matters. Wu helped broker deals in areas ranging from wireless communication standards to better enforcement of intellectual property rights. In an election year in the United States, the perceived success of these meetings was portrayed as a significant achievement for the Bush administration, though many analysts, citing the lack of impact from similar agreements made in the past, remained skeptical of the real–world import of the agreements.

Wu's role on the world stage has not escaped the notice of journalists. Fortune named her one of 20 people "likely the influential people in the global economic circle in 2002." In its 2004 list of the 100 most powerful women in the world, Forbes magazine ranked Wu second, behind only U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. She also made the "Time 100," Time magazine's list of the world's most influential people, in the category of Leaders and Revolutionaries. Despite her grandmotherly image, the Chinese media frequently publish gossip about the unmarried Wu's high–profile suitors. She has said that when she was younger she planned to eventually marry, but wanted to establish a career first. Apparently, her high–octane career never did let up enough to allow her time to consider settling down. "I spent 20 years in the backwoods," she was quoted as saying in a 1999 Asiaweek profile. "When I got out, I was already too old. Plus work was hectic. So I gave up." Trade negotiators worldwide may have a hard time believing she has ever given up at anything.


Asiaweek, September 24, 1999.

Business Week, April 12, 2004.

Orlando Sentinel, February 14, 1995.

Time, April 26, 2004.


"Who's Who in China's Leadership," http://www.china.org/english/PP–e/48928.htm (December 21, 2004).

"Wu Yi: State Councilor," ChinaOnline,http://www.chinaonline.com (December 21, 2004).