Wu Yi
State Councilor
Iron Lady - or great entrepreneur

She's called China's Iron Lady. As the country's top trade and investment negotiator, state councilor Wu Yi, 60, has earned a reputation for being tough, yet flexible. Those qualities are being put to the test in her latest challenge: gaining a place for China in the World Trade Organization. Wu's ability to deliver is proven. In 1993, when trade frictions with the U.S. were at a peak, Wu impressed party brass with her handling of talks with Mickey Kantor and Charlene Barshefsky. Last year she was made state councilor, and is now the most powerful woman in the government. That's not the way she had envisioned her life. "In my youth, I never developed a desire to enter politics. My biggest wish was to become a great entrepreneur." It would be her pick if given the choice now. "In an enterprise, you can develop your own thinking." But instead, Wu's career path led her from petroleum technician to politics, starting at the Lanzhou Petroleum Plant in 1962 and later to a Beijing refinery. Then she made a critical move to the Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical Co., a favorite training ground for the political elite. So it wasn't surprising when Wu became vice-mayor in 1988 and vice-minister of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations in 1991. And within two years, minister. She is also an alternate for the politburo. One can only imagine how far she might have gotten running her own business. Much gossip has surrounded her unmarried status and some high-profile suitors for her hand. Says she: "I'm not committed to celibacy." In her youth, she had an ideal image of a man, she says, but he "doesn't exist in real life." She had wanted to establish a career before starting a family. "I spent 20 years in the backwoods. When I got out, I was already too old. Plus work was hectic. So I gave up."

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Photo: Robyn Beck - Reuters