As China prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition next month, Liu is an outside contender to become the first woman to join the Politburo standing committee, the group of nine officials who rule China.
Although her chances of promotion are slimmer than those of other contenders, if she succeeds, she is expected to bring more charm to the secretive body.
In the same way that Premier Wen Jiabao — known as “Grandpa Wen” — is the comforting public face of the Communist Party when natural disasters strike, Liu’s carefully managed public appearances reveal a knack for appealing to the masses.
Earlier this year, she donned sweatpants and jogged around Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium to mark the beginning of a running competition.
“Exercise for an hour a day . . . and you will be healthy your whole life,” she told crowds at the starting line, according to Chinese state media.
In another popular touch, when visiting a school for the deaf in Sichuan province, she said “thank you” and “good job” in sign language.
But away from the cameras, Liu’s greatest strength lies in her political connections and consummate ability to toe the party line. Analysts say she epitomizes the keep-your-head-down, consensus-building style that now defines the Politburo.
“She seldom . . . expresses her political opinions. Her role is not at the head of the table,” said Pu Xingzu, a politics professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The Communist Party rewards officials who keep a low profile and take few risks, an art that Liu has mastered. So it is almost impossible to deduce what policies she — or any of the other potential new standing committee members — advocate.
“Chinese politics is ‘bandwagoning’ politics. You don’t want to stand out,” said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of elite Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore.
Liu comes from the Chinese equivalent of royalty. Her father worked as a top party official in Shanghai and later as a vice minister of agriculture in Beijing. He was close to the family of former president Jiang Zemin.
Growing up as the daughter of a cadre, Liu went to a kindergarten run by the mother of another soon-to-be-prominent politician, Zeng Qinghong.
Liu studied chemistry at Tsinghua University, China’s leading engineering school, whose alumni also include Hu Jintao, the current president, and his anointed successor, Xi Jinping.
After graduation, she joined a chemical factory outside Beijing where she worked her way up through the ranks before moving into politics in 1980 with a job at the influential Communist Party Organization Department.
Two years later, she made one of the most significant political moves of her career, with her appointment to the leadership committee of the Communist Youth League. A young Hu Jintao, who would eventually become China’s leader in 2002, was appointed to the leadership committee at the same time.
Hu made many of his political allies from his time at the league, creating a political power base that analysts see as loosely opposed to the “princeling” faction, a term that refers to politicians who are the children of top officials.
“Liu Yandong is one of the very few leaders who has connection with both camps,” said Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Liu’s ability to move between both worlds is one of her strong points as she vies for a place on the standing committee. But analysts say her chances are mixed.
Liu has never been a provincial governor, a key resume item for most of China’s top leaders. Her age could also count against her, because the party prefers to install younger people. The current nine-member standing committee could be shrunk to seven, reducing her chances further.
“She would definitely not be on the seven,” said Scott Kennedy, a professor of Chinese politics at Indiana University. “She essentially was chosen [for the Politburo] because of her gender and not previous performance.”
Liu has had some small hiccups in her career, once attracting national wrath by suggesting that school buses were too expensive for China. Also, her daughter chose to give birth in Hong Kong rather than in mainland China, a decision that was attacked on the Internet as unpatriotic.
However, analysts point out that Liu’s years as head of the United Front Work Department, which deals with Hong Kong, Macau and other entities outside the Communist Party, could compensate for her lack of governing experience.
“In the United Front Work Department you need to be more flexible because you are working with people from all over,” said Li, the Brookings Institution expert. “She is more open-minded than many others, she has that reputation. But it’s all relatively speaking.”
— Financial Times