It's a Chinese maxim: Women bring disaster. But one of China's most beloved politicians today is its female Vice Premier and Health Minister. In a nation ruled by men who often seem disconnected from their 1.3 billion subjects, Wu has made it her job to care about people. Some peasants believe she is a reincarnation of the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kwanyin.
The Politburo's only goddess in residence worked in the oil industry for years before serving as China's chief trade negotiator. She was appointed Health Minister during the SARS crisis last year, replacing Zhang Wenkang, who for weeks had steadfastly denied that there was an epidemic. Wu was committed to transparency. "She told me things she didn't have to because she values openness," says Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization's China representative. Wu has turned her attention to a far deadlier plague. The Health Ministry reckons that China has 840,000 HIV-positive citizens, but the nation only recently admitted it had an epidemic. Last December, Wu descended from China's cloistered leadership compound and met one on one with the country's top AIDS activist, a retired country doctor named Gao Yaojie. "Wu Yi said to me, 'Now that everyone else is gone, you can tell me the truth,'" recalls Gao. Rather than bringing disaster, Wu is cleaning one up. --By Hannah Beech