America's Next Top Model may be Wu Yi

Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi may be Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's best hope in the coming months to talk China into freer trade policies.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

(Fortune Magazine) -- Chinese Vice Premier Wu Yi may be Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's best hope in the coming months to talk China into freer trade policies. But when the 68-year-old comes to Washington in May for the second installment of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, Hammerin' Hank might want to skip the flowers and greet her with a rack of St. John knitwear.

At a private banquet for Paulson during his December trip to China, Wu wore a black suit from the American luxury designer. The next day, it was a vibrant blue number with gold buttons, as she admonished Americans for "misunderstanding" China.

Wu has enjoyed a steady rise up the Chinese hierarchy. She began her career as a chemical engineer and became deputy manager at one of China's biggest petrochemical plants. By 1988 she was vice mayor of Beijing. She burnished her reputation when SARS was threatening to mushroom from a health crisis to a political firestorm, and her quick, no-nonsense action helped contain the spread of the virus.

Her preference for this quintessentially American luxury designer, like her love of Western literature and music, suggests another layer to her defiant socialist rhetoric. Or as Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez puts it, "Her thinking is multidimensional. She's tough and direct, but there is a part there that is wise and genuine." Gutierrez - the only U.S. official who warranted a Wu hug during the December visit - says that she will often flatter visitors by recalling one of their speeches, but quickly turn around the compliment by disputing their facts.

Paulson insists that he doesn't mind her lectures. "Being educated doesn't make you a less effective advocate," he told Fortune.

Speaking of advocates, St. John recently shelled out more than $10 million to make Angelina Jolie the face of the brand, in part because of her international charity work. If the company is serious about going global, it could tap Wu when she retires from her party post in 2008. That would add a new meaning to the phrase "power suit."  Top of page