BEIJING, Sep 28 (Reuters) Can China live without its Iron Lady? Vice Premier Wu Yi has tackled issues from trade to SARS to food safety, earning a reputation as a hard-nosed troubleshooter and inspiring confidence abroad.
Wu, 68, is expected to retire from the ruling Communist Party's decision-making Politburo at the 17th Party Congress in mid-October, and is likely to step down as vice premier in a cabinet reshuffle next March.
But with Wu recently appointed to head a leading group looking into the hot-button issue of food and product safety, and with a background that is acceptable to major political factions, some are wondering whether she may defy expectations and instead win promotion to the elite Politburo Standing Committee.
''She's a wild card. She's palatable to all sides,'' said one Western diplomat.
Few top Chinese politicians command the respect that Wu enjoys internationally, a profile she earned during the 1990s when she defused a looming trade war with the United States.
''The sheer competence of the woman knocked the socks off both the Chinese side and the American side,'' said Louise Edwards, a professor at University of Technology, Sydney, who studies women in Chinese politics.
''She made that splash on the international stage, and I think that gave her more clout at home,'' she said.
Wu may have a no-nonsense style, but she inspires gushing praise almost unheard of for other Chinese leaders.
FAIR TRADE ADVOCATE ''One of the great defenders, one of the great openers up of this economy is Vice Premier Wu Yi,'' Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China, told reporters recently.
''She personally is one of the great advocates of fair trade.'' Born in the central province of Hubei, Wu shares the technocrat background of many elite political figures of her generation.
She studied oil refinery engineering at the Beijing Petroleum Institute, joining the Communist Party at 23, before working her way through the oil industry to become a vice mayor of Beijing.
In 2003, Wu was rushed in to head China's SARS Control and Prevention Headquarters after the health minister and the Beijing mayor were sacked for covering up outbreaks of the highly contagious and deadly virus.
She deftly defused a crisis that had put China's opaque system of government in the international spotlight and had made it a lightning rod for criticism not only from global health authorities but also from media freedoms and rights activists.
In other enforcer missions, Wu handled the sensitive issue of state-owned industry reform, managed a smuggling crisis and recently became head of a group tasked with handling mounting concerns over the safety of food and products made in China.
While she is now of an age when she would be expected to retire, some say she may prove indispensable.
''Zhu Rongji would probably like to see Wu Yi stay for the next five years, as likely would Wen Jiabao,'' said Victor Shih, a China scholar at Northwestern University, referring to China's former and current premiers.
But he added that he was sceptical of rumours that she would be promoted, a move that would make her the first woman to join the Politburo Standing Committee.
''I don't think she'll stay,'' he said.
TOUGH TO REPLACE If she does retire, China's leaders would have a tough time replacing the woman willing to take on the thorniest portfolios.
One possibility for a fire-fighting vice premier role is Li Yuanchao, who heads the wealthy coastal province of Jiangsu. Li is seen as adept at dealing with private enterprises and foreign investors, and is seen as a possible successor to Wen as premier.
Others say a voice at the top with more finance experience could be welcomed in Washington, where Wu has worked most recently as China's representative to the Strategic Economic Dialogue initiated by US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
''I think the Secretary would have preferred an interlocutor that had two things: more decision-making power and influence in the top leadership, and more background on financial matters,'' said Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Banking regulator Liu Mingkang and central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan are also possible candidates to be promoted to vice premier with oversight on financial matters, a government post vacated with the death of Huang Ju earlier this year.
''They are internationally known and respected and authoritative on financial matters,'' said Lardy.
Still, finding another Chinese leader who can charm Western audiences quite the way Wu has will be a tough task.
''She's just such a recognisable, international brand name of reliability,'' said Edwards. ''The Party can't do without her.'' REUTERS SG RK1040