Stars of Asia

25 leaders at the forefront of change

Stunning surprises, economic dynamism, and a bit of heartbreak -- Asia has experienced all of them this year. Just rewind the tape and you get the idea. Pundits were blown away by the electoral triumph of India's National Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, over the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. It reminded us all of democracy's power in a society that has become a global outsourcing mecca but still struggles with entrenched poverty.

Another eye-opener, of course, has been the economic revival of Japan, written off as a society in permanent decline. The turnaround owes much to gutsy managers and even some gaijin. At the same time, Chinese policymakers grappled with a white-hot economy that might run off the rails, a scenario with global implications.

Say this about the region: It hasn't lacked for human drama. And the achievements of individual policymakers, entrepreneurs, managers, financiers, and opinion shapers that drive the region are what BusinessWeek's seventh annual Stars of Asia is all about. These outstanding players come from all walks of life. In the political sphere, maverick reformers such as Japanese Economy & Financial Services Minister Heizo Takenaka are working to repair a sick banking sector that held Japan back from prosperity. And Chun Jung Bae, parliamentary leader of the ruling Uri Party, is leading a crusade to change the corruption-prone political culture of South Korea.

Let's not forget the contribution of managers, who have helped Asia remain the world's most economically vibrant region. In China, Miao Wei has refashioned what was once a near-bankrupt truckmaker, Dongfeng Motor Corp., into a profitable passenger carmaker that is now allied with Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) Another turnaround has been Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (MAT ) When Kunio Nakamura took over the company four years ago, he knew the time for half-baked restructuring was over. He slashed 20,000 jobs -- almost unthinkable in Japan. Today, Matsushita is raking in profits, thanks to lower costs as well as new and stylish digital cameras and DVD recorders.

Asia's entrepreneurial vigor is as strong as ever. Consider the story of Tony Fernandes, who had the guts to buy a tiny bankrupt Malaysian airline, Air Asia, back in late 2001, when terrorism fears slammed the industry. Today, it is a profitable, fast-growing international discount carrier, and Fernandes is driving dramatic change in civil aviation policy in Southeast Asia.

Then there are those unique souls who risk much to fight injustice and cast an unflattering light on poverty and corruption, sadly another part of the Asian reality. To many Westerners, China is a land of glittering skylines and unbridled growth. But the husband-and-wife team Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, authors of the book, China's Peasants: An Investigation, discovered the dark side of the China story, where corrupt local politicians seem unresponsive to human needs. If there is a common thread among our Asia Stars it is this: Be they mighty official or muckraker, these folks care deeply about their societies and want to make a difference. And that's one reason among many that Asia continues to fascinate.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo Correspondents Frederik Balfour, Bruce Einhorn, Moon Ihlwan, Manjeet Kripalani, Michael Shari, Dexter Roberts, Ian Rowley, Assif Shameen, and Hiroko Tashiro contributed to this report.

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