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They Changed Our Lives

In 1900, Asia was weak, even degenerate. Whatever its ancient glories, most of the region was politically, economically and intellectually bankrupt. Much of it lay under Western colonial control or influence. Science, technology, medicine, education - all were Western fiefdoms. Even Asian culture, its great traditions of learning and art, seemed irrelevant in the face of Western-defined progress. On the eve of 2000, Asia is resurgent. Its nations are independent, and its citizens are sovereign in unprecedented numbers. Standards of living, education and personal freedom have soared. Asian businesses straddle the world, even after the crippling body-blow of the recent economic crisis. And Asian cultures are celebrated with renewed pride and enthusiasm.

Of course, this is not to say that everything about Asia is a model for the rest of the world. Poverty continues to haunt many cities and the countryside. Authoritarian rulers still weigh heavy on many populations. Tolerance of dissenting views is not found everywhere. Nor is transparency in government or business. But by nearly every measure, Asians as a whole have never had better lives or more reason to hope for the future. Such has been the scale and the speed of this epic transformation, the task of understanding its full significance will perhaps have to be left to the historians - even though many of us or our parents were part of the process.

But among those who changed Asia in the 20th century were some who saw the way forward a little more clearly than others, or who found better paths or more useful tools to help us on our way. From among them, Asiaweek has sought to find the Asian of the Century - the person who contributed most to the betterment of the region in the past 100 years. Recognizing that "betterment" does not have a single source, we looked for exceptional achievements in five areas: Politics and Government; Business and Economics; Arts, Literature and Culture; Science and Technology; and Moral and Spiritual Leadership. Then, from among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are . . .


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

Politics and Government: Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese leader cast out the Maoist dogma that had cowed the nation - and unleashed economic forces that lifted vast numbers of his people from poverty. His policies substantially increased individual freedoms in China. For the region, they transformed an ideologically driven menace into a neighbor committed to stability and economic development. Asia produced many great leaders in the 20th century, but the magnitude of the changes Deng brought about and the number of people whose lives benefited from his policies won him Asiaweek's vote.

Business and Economics: Morita Akio. The co-founder of Sony was the godfather of hit products that spanned the world, from transistor radios to VCRs to the PlayStation video-game system. His marketing genius helped make Sony one of Asia's few truly global brandnames. But sales and profits are only part of the Morita story. This exceptional entrepreneur also fostered sound governance, internationalization and individual initiative - concepts that many Asian companies are only now beginning to understand.

Arts, Literature and Culture: Kurosawa Akira. With his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, Kurosawa became the first Asian film director to win an Oscar, helping to expose an Eastern aesthetic to the world. The Japanese director created classics throughout his long life and is still hugely influential in the world of the cinema, inspiring filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Zhang Yimou. He remains Asia's greatest exponent of what has been the major art form of the century.

Science and Technology: Charles K. Kao. In 1966, Kao, then working in London, laid out the theoretical basis for the practical use of lasers and glass fibers in communications networks. He further established how to make optical fibers, how to connect them to lasers and how to join lengths together. Today optical fibers carry 80% of global long-distance telecommunications traffic, bringing the far corners of the world closer together and accelerating the arrival of the networked future.

Moral and Spiritual Leadership: Mohandas K. Gandhi. Uniquely among all nominees, Gandhi was considered in two categories. He was narrowly beaten in Politics and Government by Deng Xiaoping. But his commitment to non-violence as a force for change and his application of it to lead India to independence make him the outstanding choice in this second category. His was a vision that spread around the world, influencing, among others, the Philippines' People Power revolution and the U.S. civil-rights movement.

Five individuals, each with truly exceptional achievements. But when it comes to selecting one of them to be Asian of the Century, it is a contest between three only: Deng, Gandhi and Morita.

A businessman as Asian of the Century? Did the Walkman really make Asia such a better place? Well, no. But Morita's legacy goes beyond a few nifty electronic gadgets or even a large corporation. Through Sony's constant stream of innovative and top-quality products, Morita made the term "Made in Japan" (and by extension "Made in Asia") synonymous with excellence. The great Asian export machine that he kick-started generated the region's prosperity and brought about the rise of the middle class. That, in turn, produced far-reaching social and political change and, ultimately, the birth of the New Asia. Morita's criticism of U.S. business practices in the late 1980s - which, he later regretted, were seen as America-bashing - does not diminish his achievements. In a way, Morita represents Asia's future even more than its past. As budding Asian entrepreneurs pore over their university books or make plans in laboratories or offices, dreaming of the next big thing, it is in Morita's footsteps they walk.

When thinking of "great" Asians, Gandhi immediately springs to mind. More than 50 years after his death, he is the only Asian leader this century whose achievements, influence and reputation have transcended international borders. But he has his critics. They say while his philosophy of non-violence undermined the will of the British in India, its chances of being applied successfully against less liberal colonial powers were remote. Further, his doubts about modernity have left such an enduring impression on the Indian psyche that the nation seems unable to lift itself out of poverty. For all that, the mild-mannered Indian leader changed the equation between the rulers and the ruled. He gave a mighty voice to those without influence or money or guns, and a channel for their courage.

In terms of sheer impact on his country, there are few to match Deng. As a revolutionary, he helped free China from feudal rot and foreign domination. As a reformer, he reined in a revolution run amok, brought China back from destitution and despair, and reintroduced his country into the community of nations. Because of Deng, hundreds of millions inside and outside China are a lot richer and a little less afraid. If Gandhi embodies Asia's nationalist struggle of the first half of the century, and Morita represents Asia's economic takeoff in the second, then Deng's legacy covers both.

But that legacy is stained with blood. Under Mao Zedong's direction, Deng mercilessly persecuted intellectuals during the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement. As supreme leader in 1989, he was responsible for the bloody suppression of the student-led democracy and anti-corruption movement. And he turned his back on political reform, leaving China exactly the way it was throughout his political career - a dictatorship where dissident voices are swiftly silenced. For all that, the immense benefits that sprang from Deng's policies are visible today on the streets of every town in China.

Morita, Gandhi, Deng - all were giants. But who contributed most to Asia's betterment? Morita helped the region advance economically and thus brought about social change. Deng improved the lot of the Chinese and buttressed the region's security and stability. Gandhi's contribution was altogether different. To attempt to measure his achievements against today's unblinking focus on economic growth and its benefits is to miss the true significance of the changes he brought about. Gandhi showed that freedom and dignity are inherent in people everywhere and cannot be permanently crushed by a powerful minority - whether it is an outworn colonial administration or a clique of modern-day generals. He made the common man responsible for his own destiny, and in doing so became a symbol of pride for all Asians.

So, as the newly booming Asia prepares for the challenges of a new millennium, one name endures as an inspiration for the future. It is that of Mohandas K. Gandhi - Asiaweek's Asian of the Century.

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