The whisper along China’s corridors of power is: Wu Yi gets what Wu Yi wants. On Sunday, China’s foreign trade minister justified her reputation when the United States agreed to back Beijing’s membership in the World Trade Organization.
It was a breakthrough in Sino-U.S. relations, which had teetered on the brink of a trade war in recent weeks.
Washington has been determined to obtain more access to the Chinese market as a way to reduce a thumping $28 billion trade deficit. Beijing is just as anxious to maintain trade barriers to protect its state industries.
In the wrangling, Wu - China’s only female Cabinet member - has become a media star. This in a country renowned for concealing the private lives of its leaders. China’s chief negotiator since 1993 at SinoU.S. trade talks, her popularity is celebrated today with unusual eulogies.
“Her cool, dignified manner is flawless. She wears her 57 years with grace …” wrote the Beijing magazine over the weekend.
Wu is the only Chinese leader who talks straight into a camera without notes. She candidly discusses her life and her job. She is mobbed outside concert halls and at anniversaries and happily signs autographs for her fans, something senior Chinese officials loath.
“Wu oozes confidence. She is so confident she bullies her male colleagues,” said a Chinese official. “I guess she feels secure as the only woman in the Cabinet and knowing that China will host the U.N. Conference on Women this year.”
On Sunday, the official’s fame - part Dragon Lady, part femme fatale - rocketed even further.
U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor announced, at the end of a four-hour meeting with Wu, that Washington had changed its mind. The United States would now back China’s membership in return for Beijing’s pledge to open its market to more American goods.
Kantor’s announcement took even the Chinese by surprise. Less than 24 hours earlier, Wu had threatened to ban a long list of American goods from access to Chinese markets unless the United States adhered to its 1992 pledge to support China’s membership in the trade club. It sounded like blackmail.
The new trade dispute was erupting only hours before Kantor and Wu signed a bilateral agreement. It settled a longstanding tug of war over the annual copyright piracy of $1 billion worth of U.S. compact discs and computer software.
In the past, the United States has argued that as a major global exporter China could not become a member of WTO with the status and concessions of a developing nation. China also would have to lift trade barriers first.
Wu rejected this argument. She said China’s backward and heavily subsidized state industries, many of them working with ancient machinery, couldn’t compete with sophisticated foreign imports. State industries still employ two-thirds of the country’s labor force.
A U.S. official said Sunday China’s WTO status would be further discussed and that 90 percent of China’s trade barriers could be phased out over the next five years.
Ironically, in her moment of triumph, Wu chose not to comment.
Back in 1988 when she was still a fairly unknown petrochemical engineer and vice mayor of Beijing, Wu was wooed by Yang Shankun, China’s octogenarian president and veteran of Mao Tse-tung’s Long March.
Her graceful refusal to become China’s first lady became a popular legend: “I am far too humble to accept such an exalted position,” she allegedly said.