The 'Iron Lady' who has succeeded in a man's world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 12:00am

In the frenzied days of the Cultural Revolution, business contacts with the outside world almost ground to a halt.

Radar Johanssen, who was working for a Swedish trading company as a sales agent, was one of a small number of businessmen making deals with the central government. Meetings, he recalled, always started with a ritual reading from Mao's Little Red Book.

Among the officials Mr Johanssen came in contact with was Wu Yi, a middle-aged woman dressed in a drab blue suit. She quietly commanded a natural authority over her male and more senior colleagues. Her logical mind and quick grasp of details always put her half a step ahead in the deal-making, said Mr Johanssen, who now lives in Hong Kong.

Thirty years later, Ms Wu has become the best-known female Chinese leader on the international stage. On Monday she was made Vice-Premier in charge of trade and customs, becoming the third woman in the People's Republic to hold the post.

Her intelligence, poise and boundless energy became valuable assets in the era of reform and opening. In 1988, she leapt from the petrochemical industry to the office of Beijing's vice-mayor in charge of trade and development. Three years later, she was appointed vice-minister of foreign trade and economics. After only four months on the job, she led a team to resolve disputes over intellectual property rights with the US and in the following years, she skilfully negotiated trade issues with a succession of American trade representatives.

Ms Wu is known as a tough but flexible negotiator. Her mandate was to attract foreign investment while defending China's interests. The concessions she made were not always popular among officials back home, but she always prevailed thanks to the strong support of retiring Premier Zhu Rongji.

A workaholic, Ms Wu frequently worked late into the night. When she was vice-mayor in Beijing, she slept in her office, separated by a screen from her work area. On foreign visits, she rarely took time off sightseeing.

Journalists like Ms Wu's straightforward style. During touchy negotiations with the US over textile quotas in 1994, hordes of Hong Kong reporters camped out in the corridor for three days. The meeting broke for recess without an agreement. Ms Wu's aides suggested that she leave through a back door to avoid the press pack, but instead she headed straight through the startled reporters.

Last year Ms Wu was selected by Fortune magazine as one of the 20 most influential people on the global economic scene for that year. She was called China's 'Iron Lady'.

Ms Wu has always worked in a man's world, first as a petroleum engineer and later among top government officials. Since 1998 she has served as a state councillor and was elected to the 25-member Communist Party Politburo in November. Her well-styled grey hair, soft blouse and jewel-toned jacket distinguish her from the men around her.

Graphic: WUYIGWK