Yang Qing—Xinhua/Getty Images
May 23, 2022 6:21 AM EDT

Mao Zedong might have declared that “women hold up half the sky,” but in truth the People’s Republic is ruled by an entrenched patriarchy. Only eight women have risen to China’s powerful Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, and three of them were wives of founding cadres, including Mao’s.

Sun Chunlan had no such elite connections. China’s only current female Vice Premier and Politburo member climbed the party ziggurat from working on a watch-­factory floor to lead the freewheeling coastal province of Fujian and later the port city of Tianjin. Today, the 71-year-old is the nation’s top official overseeing COVID-19 pandemic control, demonstrating the tremendous faith shown in her by strongman President Xi Jinping at a critical point, with outbreaks in a number of major cities.

When COVID-19 first exploded in Wuhan in February 2020, Sun spent three months toiling in the stricken city at great personal risk. Since the Omicron variant emerged, Sun has been pivotal to maintaining China’s “dynamic zero-COVID policy” through strict testing and isolation protocols. That policy has come under sharp criticism as Shanghai, China’s largest city, with 26 million people, remains under harsh lockdown. But Sun is staunchly upholding Xi’s diktat. She may not have destroyed China’s glass ceiling, but Sun is both reformers’ best hope and their strongest argument.

Campbell is a TIME correspondent

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