Wu Yi is tiny but powerful. Not because she was vice premier of China. And not because she was China's chief trade negotiator, or because she was named three times to Forbes' most powerful women in the world list, or because when the going gets tough, all the top men of China send Wu to do the dirty work. And not because of all that she has accomplished since she became an oil refinery engineer in 1961.
She's powerful because she is incorruptible, she has stood by her principles, and she has a great sense of humor and even greater sense of humility. And when she retired in 2007, she was one of the only officials to refuse any official or unofficial title just to keep her privileges.
“It was two women,” said Wu of the meeting, “and all those men in the room. No one was saying anything. We just sat there. Then I said, ‘I just want this conversation to be between us girls.’”
Wu was born in 1938 in Wuhan, Hubei Province. She was trained as an engineer and rose through the ranks to become party secretary of Yanshan Refinery, one of the largest oil refineries in China. At a private dinner party once, Wu said that while she was at the refinery, she got a phone call from the Organization Department of the Communist Party's Central Committee, the human-resources department of the entire Chinese bureaucracy.
• More Daily Beast Coverage of the Women in China"I remember my back just gave out when I got the phone call. I had no idea what it was all about, but it was Zhong Zu Bu calling, so I knew I had to go," Wu remembered. To her great surprise, they told her the party would like her to become minister of trade. "There I was, couldn't even stand up straight with the back pain."
She laughed as she recalled the awkward situation. History will remember her as the best trade negotiator China ever had. She was tough, relentless, yet convincing and persuasive at the same time. She never used rhetoric and stuck to facts and numbers.
"What am I going to do?" she said. "I am an engineer, not a politician."
It seems that whenever the going gets tough, all the men on top send out their best woman, and that was Wu. In 2003, when the current administration took power, China was hit with the SARS epidemic. Wu was named minister of public health in addition to minister of trade, a combination of responsibilities that no man could handle. She toughened up, took the job in stride, fired some people who lied to the international press, and made some enemies. But it was due in large part to her quick thinking that China managed to come out of the epidemic without any major damage.
Then there is the case of Dr. Gao Yaojie, a Chinese AIDS activist in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. When Gao was trying to help a poor village of HIV-positive patients, she had problems with the local authorities and went to the foreign media for help. This more or less made the doctor an enemy of the state. When Wu, as minister of pubic health, went to Henan on an official visit, she asked to talk to Gao. The local officials, all men, tried to stop her. They eventually gave in, but insisted on being present the meeting.
"It was two women," said Wu of the meeting, "and all those men in the room. No one was saying anything. We just sat there. Then I said, 'I just want this conversation to be between us girls.' The men reluctantly left. I talked to Dr. Gao and helped her solve some supply issues and other problems, and she agreed that she would work with us before going all out to the press. It was easy. And when it was over, I discovered all the men trying to eavesdrop at the window and doors."
She laughed as she recounted the story. I could just see those paranoid local male officials all bent over at the keyhole, trying to make sure they weren't losing control of the situation.
All these stories are memories of my first meeting with Wu at a private dinner party. I remember she became very thoughtful after she finished this story. "Do you think I did the right thing?" she asked us, but it was more a question to herself. "I probably annoyed the local governor."
China has been searching for another Wu Yi, but so far, no luck, not even close. But I was lucky to be invited again to have dinner with her a second time. I made a tiramisu for her. "Too sweet! My child!" she exclaimed after one spoonful.
She is my idol, even though she doesn't like my dessert.
Huang Hung is a columnist for China Daily, the English language newspaper in China. She is also an avid blogger with more than 100 million page views on her blog on sina.com.