After this summer's wave of bad news about China's product safety, Beijing finally decided it was time to patch things up. So the leadership did exactly what it has done in every tough situation China has faced over the past decade or so: It called on 68-year-old Vice-Premier Wu Yi.
Her gentle, friendly demeanor can be deceiving: The highest-ranking woman in China's Communist Party hierarchy is Beijing's enforcer of last resort. In recent years, she has cleaned up the country's image after the SARS crisis, overseen the response to the AIDS epidemic, led tough trade negotiations with Washington, and shored up the mainland's shoddy record on intellectual-property rights.
And now she's head of a new high-level food, drug, and product safety team. Although she has told some people that she plans to retire as vice-chairman after the Communist Party Congress in October, most expect her to stay on as China's top safety czar. "She's very, very good at getting things done," says James M. Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "If she can't do it, nobody can."
A RUNNING START
The question is, can anyone do what needs to be done to restore the world's faith in Chinese goods? With more than 5,000 drugmakers and 450,000 food processing companies in China, as well as tens of thousands of small exporters, sufficient inspection and regulation may be impossible. And the public-relations part of the job is just as daunting, as consumers worldwide question whether low-cost goods made in China can be trusted.
Wu is off to a fast start. In the three weeks since she took over the job, Chinese authorities have banned the use of lead paint in toys, shuttered 953 unlicensed food processing plants, closed more than 2,000 factories making fake goods, and suspended the licenses of 1,200 drug and medical equipment companies. As she did when she oversaw the fight against SARS four years ago, Wu will likely create a nationwide campaign to motivate the public, boost coordination among various ministries and agencies, and fire officials who resist change.
She brings to the job a reputation as a tough negotiator with an almost obsessive attention to detail. She's not afraid of stern measures: During SARS, she quickly quarantined thousands of suspected patients. But she has a sense of humor and a degree of candor that's unusual in China, and she often gives the likes of U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. an affectionate hug before sitting down across the table.
Wu studied oil engineering at the Beijing Petroleum Institute and cut her teeth at a refinery in China's barren west. She eventually became a top refining industry official—no small feat in the male-dominated oil business—then jumped to the equally clubby world of Communist Party politics.
Wu first came to prominence as the head of China's trade ministry in the early 1990s, but her political career really took off when she successfully hammered out trade agreements with Russia and the U.S. later in the decade, which paved the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. She has earned the respect and admiration of many foreign business executives and diplomats for her deep understanding of nitty-gritty details. "She has demonstrated enormous aptitude for hard work on technical subjects, beginning with the WTO negotiations," says Christian Murck, Asia chief for APCO Worldwide Inc., a communications consultancy. Foreigners also appreciate her attention to minutiae, such as insisting that local specialties like sea slugs aren't served to squeamish Westerners at official banquets.
Her most recent brief has been fighting counterfeiters. In May, 2004, Wu was named head of a high-level working group on intellectual property that brought together 12 different government agencies. Those working on the issue credit Wu for her zeal in cracking down on piracy—a big change of attitude in Beijing. When Jack Chang, chair of the Quality Brands Protection Committee, an anticounterfeiting lobbying group, was asked to give Wu a presentation in 2004, he and his staff feared that naming the cities with the worst piracy problems would anger local authorities. But in the end Chang decided to take the risk. "What surprised me is that she did not get offended at all in front of those provincial-level officials sitting around her," says Chang.
Despite Wu's work, though, piracy remains rampant in China. Sellers of knock-off DVDs and fake Louis Vuitton (LVMUY) bags can be seen in just about any big city, often because local governments have little incentive to shut down counterfeiters. And that's a challenge Wu will likely face once again in trying to clean up China's reputation for making dangerous or substandard goods. Unlike SARS, where the whole society willingly mobilized to stop the disease, the fight against shoddy products is sure to run up against deeply entrenched local interests, be they plant managers or town officials dependent on taxes from factories. "Local governments tend to protect their own interests," says Jihong Sanderson, executive director of a China research institute at the University of California, Berkeley, who has helped train Wu's intellectual-property team.
That brazen economic calculus in China has hampered everything from enforcing intellectual-property laws to protecting workers to cleaning up the environment. And the same calculus means this latest challenge will surely be the toughest yet for Beijing's top troubleshooter.
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By Dexter Roberts and Chi-Chu Tschang