The Stars of Asia

It is a time of transition in Asia. Vibrant China continues to be a locomotive of growth despite a weak global economy. Five years after the onset of the Asian financial crisis, much of the rest of the region looks to be on the edge of a turnaround. Even stagnant Japan has seen an upturn in recent months. Many of the men and women chosen as this year's Stars of Asia reflect the renewed sense of possibility. With remarkable zeal, they are selling highly competitive products in global markets, rehabilitating dysfunctional companies, selling off bad debt to give banks and corporations a fresh start, and expanding programs to democratize companies, help the poor, and fight AIDS.

If anyone has forgotten that Asian business leaders know how to make quality products and market them globally, people such as Lee Ki Tae of Korea's Samsung Electronics Telecommunications Network, who has recently put his company's mobile phones on the map, and Terry T.M. Gou of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., which makes a variety of electronic products, are here to remind them.

Among Asian-based marketers, Unilever Indonesia Chairman Nihal Kaviratne has stood out. He has spent the past four years battling for sales amid Indonesia's political and economic turmoil--and has won. He snapped up cash-strapped companies to broaden Unilever's product mix and attracted millions of new customers among the poor by offering them products they could afford.

Asians are learning from foreigners, too. Star Carlos Ghosn, a former Renault exec, has revived Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) after a wrenching cost-cutting campaign. And Ernst & Young Asia Pacific Financial Solutions debt-workout specialist Jack Rodman has made a religion out of the importance of selling off Asia's bad debt.

Meanwhile, the movement to invigorate free markets and improve corporate governance has gained momentum. Arun Shourie, chief of India's privatization program, has done more to get the government's nose out of business than any official before him. Yan Yiming is doing his best to defend much-trampled shareholder rights in China. Attorney Mulya Lubis is working to initiate the kind of legal reform that might halt the flight of multinational investment from Indonesia.

Some of the Stars are world leaders in their fields. Sumio Iijima, a researcher for electronics giant NEC Corp. (NIPNY ), is renowned for his discovery of the nanotube--an industrial material likely to have a myriad of important uses. His work, along with that of genomics technology researcher Hideki Kambara of Japan's Hitachi Central Research Laboratory, proves that Asia has the intellectual rigor to carry it through rough times.

By Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong, with bureau reports

Several BusinessWeek correspondents contributed to this Special Report. They are: Brian Bremner, Chester Dawson, Bruce Einhorn, Moon Ihlwan, Irene M. Kunii, Manjeet Kripalani, Michael Shari, Dexter

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.