Feminine charm, a proactive nature, political and media savvy, plus a big dollop of luck - all have contributed to the rise of Fu Ying to the top of China's diplomatic corps. Thirty years of solid international and domestic experience culminated in Fu being appointed vice-minister of the Foreign Ministry earlier this month. The 56-year-old is only the second woman to become a vice-minister of the People's Republic, and she is the first to come from an ethnic minority. Ambassador to Australia when an attache defected, and ambassador to Britain when the Olympic torch relay was ruined by protesters - not to mention when a shoe was hurled at Premier Wen Jiabao - Fu has been confronted by numerous high-profile diplomatic time bombs, all of which she diffused with poise. She is one of the few Chinese ambassadors to establish a distinct personal style of diplomacy, a style that seemed to go down well with both the Foreign Ministry and the media in the host countries. When Fu was about to leave her Australian post in 2007, Radio Australia's foreign affairs editor, Graeme Dobell, described her as 'the new face of Chinese diplomacy' and said she 'has personified China's smile diplomacy and the idea of a peaceful rise of China'. Last May, Fu was named Asian diplomat of the year by Britain-based Diplomat Magazine. 'She has worked hard to help the UK and the EU understand more about her home country ... in a candid and humane way hardly seen before,' the magazine said. Of Mongolian ethnicity, Fu grew up in Inner Mongolia , where she was caught up in the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Her father, a philosophy student and former deputy propaganda chief of the Inner Mongolia military production unit, was subjected to 'criticism and struggle' in front of her eyes. Her own studies were interrupted, and she had to work for the unit's broadcasting station, running between regiments playing propaganda films. She holds no grudge over the period, instead attributing her toughness and perseverance to the ordeal. 'During those three years I learned what hunger was, what fatigue was and what the limit of my body was,' Fu said in an interview with Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao several years ago. 'They were the hardest times of my life, but also very valuable ones.' Fu showed her knack for being in the right place at the right time when she secured a recommendation to study English and French at Beijing Language University, which set her on the path for a career in diplomacy. She joined the Foreign Ministry in 1977 as a translator and worked for leaders including Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin over the course of nine years. During this period she also completed a master's degree in international relations at the University of Kent in England. Thereafter she joined the ministry's Department of Asian Affairs and proved herself in key roles over a range of hot regional issues, which included peacekeeping efforts in Cambodia, the Sino-Apec strategic partnership negotiations and the setting up of the Six-Party Talks on ending North Korea's nuclear programme. She became consular minister in Indonesia in 1997 and ambassador to the Philippines the year after, becoming the youngest female and ethnic minority diplomat ever made a Chinese ambassador. Her rise became even steeper after that: director general of the Department of Asian Affairs, ambassador to Australia in 2004 and ambassador to the United Kingdom in 2007, the last position she held before the promotion this month. Several things make her stand out from her contemporaries: a head of stylish silver hair, elegant outfits, a warm smile and, above all, humour. When the first political attache in charge of monitoring Chinese dissidents in Australia, especially Falun Gong members, Chen Yonglin, defected from the embassy in Canberra in May 2005 and claimed China had 1,000 spies in the country, Fu skilfully deflected the sharp questions that followed. 'It has become a very interesting point and a joke,' she said. 'If I can't attend a dinner with one of my colleagues in the diplomatic corps, if I say, 'I am busy, I'm sorry, I can't come,' they say, 'Oh, it's OK, you are busy with your spy network'.' 'No comment' was never her line. She did not avoid the local media and pulled no punches while rebuking Chen for lying and being greedy. Meanwhile, she surprised many by persuading the Australian foreign minister to sign certificates for 39 consecutive months restricting Falun Gong members from holding peaceful appeals in front of the Chinese embassy. 'She approaches problems with a different mindset, not the typical defensive mindset, but a focus on persuasion and being open about it,' said international relations professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who also credited her for bringing a flexible approach to the South China Sea dispute. During her time in Britain, she gave frequent speeches at universities and wrote articles for local media. After thousands protested against the Olympic torch in London, she wrote in the Daily Telegraph about how some young Chinese athletes were shocked at the hostility shown towards their country. She spoke of their teary eyes and how they could not believe 'this land nourished Shakespeare and Dickens'. She underlined the danger of the Western press 'demonising' China, and said she was concerned that 'mutual perceptions between the people of China and the West are quickly drifting in opposite directions'. Her innovation in portraying China to the world was also shown during Wen's visit to England in February last year. She arranged for him to receive an unprecedented interview with The Financial Times, and after a shoe was hurled at him at Cambridge University, she conveyed a message that the Chinese premier urged forgiveness and said: 'It is hoped that this student will see his mistake and seek to understand a real and developing China.' When The Sun tabloid exposed in November a complaint from Chinese embassy staff about screaming fans camped outside a neighbouring property - where popular contestants from the TV singing competition The X Factor were staying - Fu again responded in an unexpected way. 'It was fun finding myself caught up in X Factor fever and reading about the 'diplomatic row' involving my embassy,' Fu wrote in an open letter to the tabloid. 'My daughter e-mailed me wondering if she could fly in and join the screaming fans! I have to admit that I also enjoy watching The X Factor when there is time and have my favourite contestants.' She then talked about Super Girls in China and said that 'the beauty of such shows is that they give young people a chance to realise their dreams'. When the latest diplomatic row over the execution of drug trafficking Briton Akmal Shaikh turned nasty, good timing again saved Fu, since she was already set to be promoted. A UK-based expert who refused to be named said the execution was particularly harmful for China's image, especially after the less-than-satisfactory Copenhagen talks on climate change. Experts do not think Fu's ascent signals a sea change in Chinese diplomacy. 'One can't simply say this is a shift towards soft diplomacy or hard diplomacy, because both are still important right now,' Zhang Xiaojing of Renmin University said. 'It is more a shift towards greater emphasis on communications.' Singapore's Li concurred that only a small portion of top Chinese diplomats will proactively engage the outside world like Fu did. 'But, indeed, the new generation of diplomats is showing a much better understanding of the outside world than their predecessors; they are more realistic and more open-minded,' Li said, noting how the older generation is more influenced by traditional thinking, such as disputes over sovereignty and Western hostility towards China. 'Maybe one more generation and we'll see a wider change.' Steven Tsang, a China watcher at Oxford University, said the fate of Fu's predecessor, He Yafei , may shed more light on the direction of Chinese diplomacy. 'It is unclear whether He Yafei is being rewarded or punished right now,' Tsang said, referring to the recent removal of the vice-minister from office. Some say He will be promoted to a more important position, such as ambassador to the United States, but others say he has been demoted due to his performance as spokesman at the Copenhagen summit, when he described a US opponent as 'lacking common sense' and 'irresponsible'. 'Fu Ying belongs to a group of diplomats that use language, symbols and ideas that make it difficult for the outside world to take critical positions on China,' Tsang said. 'But He belongs to another group that is more brash and aggressive. He Yafei's prospects might tell us more about the direction Chinese diplomacy will take in the future.'