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Liu Yandong: The woman who charmed China

Sunday, 17 March 2013 - 10:25am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph

She was born to Communist party royalty, the closed circle of senior officials who have carved up money and influence in China between them. But as a woman she has still had to battle against the odds as she sought to reach the upper echelons of power.
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She was born to Communist party royalty, the closed circle of senior officials who have carved up money and influence in China between them. But as a woman she has still had to battle against the odds as she sought to reach the upper echelons of power.

On Saturday, however, Liu Yandong was appointed one of China's four vice-premiers - making her not only the most powerful woman in the government, but also one of the most powerful in the world.

Her portfolio has yet to be disclosed, but Liu, 67, will be responsible for the day-to-day running of a large swathe of the world's emerging second superpower.

Her elevation came among a number of appointments to the top of the Chinese government as Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, president and prime minister, lined up the team that will serve under them as they begin an expected decade in power.

Since Chairman Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, masterminded the oppressive Cultural Revolution, women have been eyed suspiciously by the Chinese Communist Party. There is only one other woman in China's 25-strong Politburo - Sun Chunlan.

Always immaculately turned out in a skirt suit and pearls, Liu has navigated the treacherous route to the top with unerring charm, pedigree and no small amount of political skill.

Born in the shipbuilding town of Nantong in eastern China, Liu's father was an official in Shanghai and then a vice-minister of agriculture.

He was close to Jiang Zemin, the former president, and introduced his adoptive father into the Communist Youth League. Her nursery, meanwhile, was run by the mother of a former vice president, Zeng Qinghong.

She went to Tsinghua University, the alma mater of both Hu Jintao, the former president, and Xi, and studied the same subject - chemical engineering - as the latter.

Those who have met her describe her as quietly efficient, modest and amiable. In one popular touch, she said "good job" and "thank you" in sign language when she visited a school for the deaf in Sichuan province. She also endeared herself to the public by jogging around Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium and by visiting China's two sporting superstars, Yao Ming, the basketball player and Liu Xiang, the athlete, to wish them well when they were injured.

Although she favours the same back-combed, jet black-dyed pompadour hairstyle as the men of the Communist party, she takes a great deal more care over her dress. Wen Wei Po, a newspaper in Hong Kong, counted that she changed four times a day when she visited in 2004.

Nor does she give anything away. While she is often described as liberal-minded, it is impossible to know her political opinion with certainty because she has never voiced a point of view in public.

Only once has she taken a major risk, according to one political commentator in Beijing, who asked not to be named. As the protests in Tiananmen Square flared up, he said, Liu was on the central committee of a supportive Communist Youth League, which sent food and water to students camped out in the square - although her own role in this is unclear.

Her sole daughter, Yang Fan, has a liberal lifestyle by Chinese standards: she lives in Hong Kong and is married to an ethnic Chinese with a Canadian green card, according to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

As the rest of Xi's first administration was unveiled yesterday, what emerged was a cautious and conservative cabinet shaped by horse-trading and power politics between the party's factions.

Alongside Liu are three other vice-premiers, all with different patrons. Wang Yang, a charismatic 58-year-old up-and-coming star is connected to Hu through the Communist Youth League.

Ma Kai, 66, who, according to another WikiLeaks cable, was horrified by the overt homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain when he watched it on DVD, is close to former prime minister Wen Jiabao.

And Zhang Gaoli, who presided over a property bubble in the coastal city of Tianjin, is a protege of Jiang, but also has links to Xi.

"Xi Jinping has always looked at Zhang as an 'older brother'," said the source. "When Xi's father went south in 1978, he struggled in Guangdong and only Zhang in Shenzhen took good care of him." Some 14 of the 25-strong cabinet, meanwhile, remained unchanged, causing some consternation among those hoping that Xi's administration would lean towards liberalism and reform.

"What we have here is certainly a compromise," said the source. The decision to keep faith with the environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, was greeted with dismay. Zhou has presided over years of pollution in favour of rapid economic growth.

Elsewhere, China appointed a Japan-hand to foreign minister, in a nod to the deterioration in perhaps the country's most important bilateral relationship. Wang Yi, 59, served as China's ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007.

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