The Stars of Asia

25 leaders at the forefront of change

During the past year, Asia has had to face some grim realities. The shocks of the global struggle with terrorism came home to the region with the Bali nightclub bombing in October. The SARS epidemic took off in China -- and quickly threatened the region's medical and economic well-being. More prosaically, the subdued business environment made heavy demands on corporate leaders, forcing them to focus on basics.

Yet this has been anything but a lost year for much of Asia. And that's clearly reflected in BusinessWeek's sixth annual special report on the Stars of Asia. The achievements of this group of policymakers, entrepreneurs, managers, financiers, and opinion shapers stand out against the backdrop of difficult conditions. BusinessWeek's Stars are rooting out terrorists in Southeast Asia and ensuring that fair elections take place even in troubled Indian states such as Gujarat and Kashmir. They're winning important victories for such causes as shareholder rights in South Korea and environmental protection in remote China. They're producing record results for their companies, from Hong Kong to Japan, and repairing the finances of governments and corporations.

This year, of course, dealing with SARS has proved one of the biggest challenges, particularly for political leaders -- and medical workers -- in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Amid the shock and panic, a number of heroes have emerged. They are featured in a special essay. For his handling of the SARS fight, China's new President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao earns a place on the 2003 Stars list. Abandoning the traditional secrecy of the Chinese leadership, he acknowledged the crisis and held top officials accountable for trying to cover it up. He's promoting -- at least for now -- a degree of transparency rarely seen in the Communist state.

But SARS is not Asia's only pressing issue. In South Korea, where a new generation of political leaders has also taken power, a battle is being waged by reformers who want to combat corruption, build an independent judiciary, and break the traditional cozy links between business and government. South Korean Justice Minister Kang Gum Sil as well as corporate governance activist Kim Joo Young are stars for their prominent and accomplished roles in this effort. Besides the reformers, two South Korean managers -- Samsung Electronic's Hwang Chang Gyu and LG Electronics Inc.'s Kim Ssang Su -- are stars this year because of the stellar performance of their companies in fiercely competitive industries: semiconductors and white goods.

What about Asia's entrepreneurial spirit? It remains undimmed. In Malaysia, Francis Yeoh has taken his family's construction business, YTL Corp., and turned it into a utility company with global reach. Wang Chuanfu, founder and chairman of China's BYD Co., now supplies batteries for the cell phones of such global giants such as Nokia Corp. and Motorola Inc. He started his company just seven years ago, when opportunities seemed too limited for him in China's chronically underfunded state laboratories. These stars -- and others on the 2003 list -- demonstrate the vision and drive necessary to turn an idea into a successful company.

But it is Mitsuru Haruyama who has the most universal lessons to teach. Diagnosed nearly 20 years ago with muscular dystrophy, the former ski bum harnessed his bad luck to some entrepreneurial zeal and built a successful business designing everything from wheelchair-accessible bathtubs to retirement communities -- all with the needs of the patient in mind. An author and lecturer, he has become a forceful fighter for the handicapped. Such grit is one more sign that Asia is capable of rising to the occasion -- and pushing ahead -- even in the face of crisis.

Correspondents Brian Bremner, Chester Dawson, Bruce Einhorn, Moon Ihlwan, Andrew Park, Irene M. Kunii, Manjeet Kripalani, Sheridan Prasso, Michael Shari, and Dexter Roberts contributed to this Special Report. Rose Brady and Michael S. Serrill edited the report in New York.

By Mark L. Clifford, with bureau reports

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