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Yi Wu Edit Profile

议 吴

business woman

Wu Yi is a retired Chinese politician. She was one of the country's most visible leaders during the first decade of the 21st Century, best known for taking on the role of Minister of Health during the SARS outbreak and later becoming Vice Premier of the State Council, a position she served in between 2003 and 2008.


Wu Yi was born in November 1938 in Wuhan City, Hubei, China.


Wu Yi studied Oil Refinery Engineering, National Defense Department, Northwest Polytechnic Institute and the Oil Refinery Department, Beijing Petroleum Institute, 1956—1962.


She began working at the Lanzhou Oil Refinery in Gansu Province, after graduation in 1962. Three years later, she moved to the Technology Department of the Petroleum Ministry. She transferred to the Dongfanghong Refinery in 1967, where she stayed for 16 years, until 1983, working her way up from a technician’s job to deputy director of the refinery. She was appointed deputy manager of the Beijing Yanshan Petrochemical Corporation in 1983 and served until 1988. Although she joined the Communist Party of China in 1962, she was not really active in politics until she was elected vice mayor of Beijing in 1988. Her 26 years of technical and management experience in the petroleum industry served her well. She was tasked to look after the city’s foreign trade and industrial development. Three years later, she was appointed to a similar task that expanded to gargantuan proportions: the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. She has been quoted as saying, ‘in my youth, I never developed a desire to enter politics. My biggest wish was to become a great entrepreneur’ (Forbes, 2004). In her job as vice premier, she has become the exponent of the Chinese entrepreneur.

Wu has been in the central government apparatus for only a decade and a half, since joining the bureaucracy in 1991 as vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, where she later became minister in 1993. She is credited with having been a vital force in the negotiations that led to the entry of the People’s Republic of China into the World Trade Organization. When the United States began complaining about China’s alleged violations of intellectual property rights, the task of reorganizing the Chinese customs service fell into her hands. In 1998, Wu Yi was appointed as a state councilor, the select group of only five members that runs the government of China. The Council is also called the ‘cabinet’ of Premier Zhu Rongji, and Wu Yi was put in charge of foreign trade issues. She was appointed vice premier of the State Council in March 2003.

Wu Yi is at the helm of government programs to develop China’s hinterland, through the engine of increased foreign trade. She supports the growth of high-tech exports and aims to attract foreign direct investment by instituting policies and laws favorable to foreign investors. Wu is a firm believer in bilateral trade cooperation. She encourages Chinese companies to establish assembly plants overseas. During a visit to the United States in 2006, she underscored her point on bilateral trade by wrapping up $18 billion in government contracts, including a $5 billion order from an American aircraft manufacturer.

Wu Yi continues to deal with thorny issues. There have been problems with the United States and other trading partners over safety issues. Pet food exported from China to the USA and other countries has been found to be contaminated with toxic substances. A number of US companies have recalled toys made in China because of unacceptable levels of lead in the paint. Such issues will need the toughness and flexibility of China’s best trade negotiator, the Iron Lady, Wu Yi. In 2007, Wu Yi was appointed as the group leader for the Product Quality and Food Safety Working Group in the State Council.


The promotion to the State Council elevated Wu Yi to the more lofty intricacies of running the government and she has tackled both foreign trade affairs and health issues. During the height of the SARS crisis, China was criticized for its handling of the emer- gency, and the health minister was subsequently fired for covering up the extent of the crisis in the country. Wu took over the reins in the health ministry and headed the task force that eventually solved the crisis. One of the actions that earned her the gratitude of people all over the world was her policy of transparency. She authorized the release of all information on China’s efforts to resolve the crisis and welcomed help from outside the country. For this, Time magazine admiringly gave her the title ‘goddess of transparency’ and included her in the magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2004. During the same year, Wu Yi turned her attention to AIDS in China and became the director of the State Council’s Working Committee on AIDS Prevention.


Called by Chinese media as the "Iron Lady of China", Wu was regarded as a firm and direct woman who, unlike her mostly male colleagues, chose not to dye her graying hair black. Wu did not marry all her life. When questioned about this, Wu said, "it's not that I have always wanted to be alone, it's just that life has never given me the opportunity [for romance]; no one has ever entered my life in this way."