Observers use the phrase 'going into battle' when they recall the trade talks that former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky held with former foreign trade minister Wu Yi from 1995 to 2000. The two 'iron ladies' jousted, often violently, at the 50-plus meetings they had to negotiate China's accession to the World Trade Organisation. 'We used tough language,' says Ms Barshefsky, remembering her encounters with Ms Wu, now the vice-premier in charge of health and the recent Sars crisis breaker. 'During the intellectual property rights talks, we made it very clear that the Chinese pirates were engaging in theft and should be punished. The Chinese side responded by saying they felt the US was being arrogant.' Ms Barshefsky was putting it mildly. In fact, Wu Yi shot back: 'If Chinese are thieves, then Americans are robbers. Just look at your museums, many of the artefacts were robbed from China.' Nevertheless, Ms Barshefsky, a senior partner at a Washington DC law firm, has nothing but the highest regard for her and today could be considered a member of the Wu Yi fan club. 'She is unique,' says Ms Barshefsky. 'She is highly intelligent and very straightforward. She is an excellent listener. She is no-nonsense. Although she is very tough, she always was fair and conscious of China's interests.' Wu Yi's quick containment of the Sars virus, extinguishing what could have been a full-blown political crisis, won her praise within and outside China. 'Because she is so businesslike and isn't afraid of difficult issues, she was the perfect choice in dealing with a crisis spinning out of control,' says Ms Barshefsky. 'That is her specialty.' Ms Wu, 64, has come a long way from her days as an entry-level chemical engineer working in dirty, dusty Lanzhou, Gansu province. A hard-working woman who has never married, she stood out as a good learner and team leader. Her serious demeanour and self-effacing style led to her induction into the Communist Party in 1962, just months after she graduated from the Beijing Petroleum Institute and was posted to the Lanzhou oil refinery. Although she was just a 'workshop technician' she was immediately recruited to the staff of the refinery's Party Political Department. Five years later, she was in Beijing. In 1967, aged 29, she joined the Ministry of Petroleum Industry as a technician before being seconded to the Beijing Dongfanghong (East is Red) refinery, where she began working her way up the ranks. It was a long and arduous process, but 16 years later, in 1983, Ms Wu became deputy general manager of the Yanshan Petrochemical Corp and secretary of its party committee, not an easy task considering that she was the first woman to rise to such heights in China's petrochemical industry. That relatively high-profile position made Ms Wu a heroine at the All China Women's Federation, which began pushing behind the scenes to promote her higher up the ranks. Her life from there on was a string of firsts. In 1988, with the help of the federation's lobbying, she became one of two women who broke into the exclusive male-only club of Beijing's vice-mayoral office. Her female counterpart, He Luli, was the daughter of Kuomintang mayor He Siyuan, who handed over Beijing to the Communists in 1949, and a rising star in the Revolutionary Kuomintang, a 'democratic' party operating under the auspices of the Communist Party. 'The Women's Federation pushed for both women candidates, but wasn't optimistic it could get two vice-mayors,' says Feng Yuan, a senior editor at the Beijing-based Women's Daily, who as a reporter at the People's Daily covered women's issues in 1988, the year Ms Wu was made a vice-mayor of Beijing. 'Her individual characteristics began to shine [as a vice-mayor],' says Ms Feng. 'She was very frank, almost to the point of being offensive.' Her candidness won admiration, however, and her handling of Beijing's foreign investment as vice-mayor, led to her appointment, in 1991, as the first female vice-minister at the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (Moftec), then run by Li Lanqing, who became vice-premier in the late 1990s. Two years later, she became Moftec's first woman minister. Guang Anping, the managing partner of Anping & Partners, one of Beijing's top foreign trade law firms, recalls their first meeting, in 1990. 'I was then an editor at a Moftec magazine and I was giving training sessions at the ministry on certain foreign trade legal issues when Madam Wu came to visit,' he says. 'She was quite new and turned to me and said: 'I should have gone to the Foreign Trade University before coming here to work as vice-minister. You're all experts. Please help me.' I was impressed.' Although gritty, Ms Wu - who declines interviews with foreign media and often sidesteps the local media as well - is known for calling herself a xiaonuzi (little girl) whenever she needs help from her subordinates. She knew little about foreign trade upon entering the ministry, but was a quick learner who never shirked responsibility. 'We all saw how hard she worked,' says Mr Guang, who became an adviser to Ms Wu on foreign-trade legal issues but left the ministry to found his own law firm in 1992. 'To work for Wu Yi you have to work hard too.' Mr Guang also praises Ms Wu for promoting bright young talent rapidly up the ranks, such as Long Yongtu, the former vice-minister of foreign trade who helped China negotiate the final stages of its entry to the WTO in 1999 and 2000. Ms Wu also liked to promote women. On her trips to the US to negotiate with Ms Barshefsky, she took with her a team of female assistants who stayed up with her late into the night in their hotel rooms hammering out the terms. 'It was convenient for her to work with other women,' says Mr Guang. 'They could work into the night, and discuss things among themselves, and do it all wearing night gowns.' Ms Wu's major weakness was her impatience with laziness, and this caused her to offend some people in Beijing's political circles. But she also has a tender side, recalls Mr Guang. 'She remembers people for their strengths. Even today when she meets me, she takes time out to talk to me about how my law firm is going. She would never look down on me.' Ms Wu's recent handling of the Sars crisis has won her more admirers among the foreign business community. 'I think most certainly her understanding of international affairs and China's economy made a huge difference,' says Robert Pollard, managing director of UK-based medical market research firm Isis Research. 'The moment Wu Yi took over in April you noticed the daily Sars reports, the transparency. It was a monumental change. 'Her experience in international trade gave her an edge. She knew the consequences on China's economy if Sars got out of control. She brought everything to bear and got it under control. She did a fantastic job.' On April 20, the day Ms Wu assumed the health portfolio, then health minister Zhang Wenkang as well as Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong were sacked for underplaying the Sars crisis. Christian Murck, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, says many in the foreign business community knew that Sars would soon be under control with Ms Wu as health minister. 'At the time she was appointed, it was already clear that Sars would have an impact on China's economy,' says Mr Murck. 'It was just a question at the State Council of who to hand this problem to. They turned to Wu Yi and she quickly met their expectations, as well as ours.' Although many laud her for her achievements in crisis management, Ms Wu has her critics, and ironically some of her fiercest are feminists in China. 'There is a feeling among many in the Women's Federation, which helped push for her ascendancy up the ranks in 1988, that she never promoted other women or paid attention to women's issues,' says Ms Feng. 'She has often countered their criticism by saying that 'you have to depend on yourself and your own ability'. But even Madam Wu cannot deny the fact that politically powerful women are a minority in China. Although [late] chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed that 'women hold up half the sky', less than 20 per cent of the Communist Party's 60 million plus members are women and less than five per cent make it to vice-ministerial ranks. 'Nevertheless, many of us still look to Wu Yi as a role model,' says Ms Feng. 'The fact that she can climb so high is an encouragement to all women who aspire to senior political positions.'