Photo montage by Adam Connors|
By JONATHAN SPRAGUE
Who has more power over you: the head of your government, or the head
of the company that shapes how you work, how you communicate, how
you live and play? Let's put them head to head. more >>
Power 50 Special
Watch the CNN special of the Power 50 in the making
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"Too many people who wield power tend to believe it's theirs for life...it isn't"
"What would a millennium cabinet drawn from Asiaweek's Power 50 2000 look like?"
Who has more power
over the other: the political leader who sets economic policy, or
the businessman whose investment decisions determine whether that
policy will work -- or is even relevant? More to the point, at a time
when globalization, computers and the Internet are erasing national
boundaries and rewriting everything we had imagined about the future,
who has more influence on tomorrow?
Of course, national leaders have certain advantages when it comes
to a power showdown, like armies and judiciaries and taxpayer funds.
The recent financial crisis and recession also starkly showed the
limits of business. But in synchrony with the recovery taking hold
in the region, enterprise is coming to the fore again. It is not the
state-sponsored development that powered Asia in the past. Governments
are no longer setting the business agenda. On the contrary, they are
scrambling to meet the economic, educational, social and even environmental
conditions that will attract New Economy entrepreneurs, without whom
they know their countries are doomed to fade.
Yet, this being Asia, the break between the old and the new is not
so clear. Unlike in the United States, where everybody seems to be
obsessed with whatever "New New Thing" is being created by computer
geeks tinkering in college dorm rooms, some of the swiftest, smartest,
most self-assured masters of innovation turn out to be the ones who
helped build the old Asian miracle. Not all, of course. Some tycoons
are looking distinctly antique. And bright young newcomers are crowding
in from below. But imagine a superman with Old Economy heft, New Economy
vigor and some good-old fashioned friends in high places, and you
have the picture of the man at the top of this year's Asiaweek Power
50 -- Li Ka-shing.
Li has always hovered near the top of the chart, but in the past year
he and his family outdid themselves. The one-time plastic flowers
maker turned property de-veloper continued to expand his empire across
borders and business lines. His Brit-ish mobile phone venture Orange
turned into a huge financial windfall and a 5% stake in Vodaphone,
the world's largest mobile company, after a series of deals. His Hutchison
Ports runs 18 container terminals around the world, including both
ends of the Panama Canal, and handles a tenth of world trade. His
Internet portal Tom.com achieved a market value of $2.8 billion on
the day its shares were listed. Most of all, Li's son Richard built
his Pacific Century Cyberworks into one of Asia's top Internet conglomerates
and is poised to take over Hong Kong's dominant telephone company.
Li Ka-shing is not alone in successfully building a bridge between
the old and new. At No. 3 on the Power 50 is Sony chief executive
Idei Nobuyuki, who by aggressively reinventing the audio-video pioneer
as a software-hardware all-rounder is positioning it to shape the
post PC era. Azim Premji, No. 15, turned Wipro from a maker of soaps
and shoes into a global leader in software solutions. At No. 14 in
his own right is Richard Li, who may surpass his father in the not
too distant future. And there are the more purely New Economy entrepreneurs
like Softbank founder Son Masayoshi (No. 8), who as Asia's premier
Internet investor might have been No. 1 had not the recent downturn
in technology shares shaved several billions off of his net worth
(don't worry, he has plenty more), and Infosys Technologies chief
Narayana Murthy (No. 40), who along with compatriots like Premji is
making India a computer software superpower.
Of course government leaders have not faded away and the usual suspects
are on the list. But here also the watchwords are change and new ideas.
Debuting at No. 6 is Taiwan's incoming leader, Chen Shui-bian. He
has yet to take office, but by breaking the Kuomintang's 51-year rule,
he has already ushered the island into a new stage of democracy, and
his record of supporting Taiwan independence has shaken Beijing to
its core. Jumping into the top 10 is Abdurrahman Wahid (No. 7), who
despite running an erratic administration has held Indonesia together
as it gropes toward a more open society. And India's A.B. Vajpayee
(No. 9) was boosted not only by old-fashioned power plays like Kargil,
but by opening up his nation further to the world and presiding over
its growing technology prowess. Everywhere, effective leaders are
basing their strength on reform, not repression.
Of course "new" does not apply to everything. There is plenty that
is consistent, or just persistent. The continuing clout of China,
led by President Jiang Zemin at No. 2, is an example of the former.
The resiliency of born-again crony businessmen like Eduardo "Danding"
Cojuangco (No. 45) and Lucio Tan (No. 47) may be a display of the
latter. And some "new" things are not so welcome. The xenophobic gaffes
of Ishihara Shintaro (No. 37) are like blasts from an unhappy past,
overshadowing his positive achievements as Tokyo governor. But the
trend is with the innovators, the reformers, the inventors. From a
past in which power was too often used to control, Asia is moving
into an era when power will be used to create.
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