For much of Asia, this year started in a blur of death and destruction. On Dec. 26 an earthquake erupted in the sea off Sumatra and a giant wave swept across the region, killing about 225,000 and destroying billions of dollars' worth of property, businesses, and infrastructure in coastal communities in Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. All these societies were put to the test by the tsunami. Six months later plenty of rebuilding lies ahead, but the early predictions of mass starvation, social unrest, and epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and other diseases never came to pass. That's impressive -- even somewhat miraculous.
The tsunami and its aftermath produced hundreds of heroes. They range from simple fishermen and peasants who saved each other and each other's children from drowning, to local and foreign governments and aid agencies whose workers swarmed over the affected areas offering medical care, food, and temporary housing. For BusinessWeek's Stars of Asia we singled out two individuals for commendation: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who led a relief effort that fed and cared for tens of thousands of survivors, and Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan of Thailand, who spent 40 days working to identify the dead so that family members would have some closure.
In part because of the tsunami, our eighth annual Stars of Asia list covers a broad territory, honoring individuals for their crisis leadership, managerial smarts, guiding role in innovation, and social activism. Even as he deals with the tsunami's devastation, Indonesia's Yudhoyono is overseeing what could be the beginning of an economic turnaround for the archipelago after years of drift. He's cracking down on corruption, attracting foreign investment, and hunting down terrorists, while nudging Islamic leaders and clerics down a more moderate path.
Predictably, our lineup of Stars recognizes the growing importance of China and India on the global economic stage. Chinese companies, flush with cash from rising exports and cheap access to capital, are buying up energy assets and brand names around the world. One name to watch is Yin Yimin, whose ZTE Corp. is expanding fast, making equipment for the cellular-phone industry.
India continues to evolve from an economy that delivers great software, outsourced tax returns, blood-pressure drugs, and angioplasties cheaply to one that offers high-end services such as management consulting and auto and aerospace design. Stars such as Indian research czar Raghunath Mashelkar are helping drive that process. Meanwhile, South Korea is consolidating its gains as the world's most wired society, while the business Stars of Japan and Taiwan continue to churn out cool digital appliances and critical technology components for the world's computers, personal-digital assistants, and ever-more-sophisticated mobile phones.
One reason Asian companies have become suppliers to the world is that they boast good management. Katsuhiko Machida, for instance, has staged a remarkable turnaround at Japan's Sharp Corp. (SHCAY ) since 1998, when he decided to abandon cathode-ray-tube TVs and poured serious yen into the new flat-screen variety. Today, Sharp is the leader in LCD panels and TVs and is rolling in profits. So is the diversified commodity merchant Noble Group in Hong Kong, run by Richard S. Elman. It feeds the Asian growth machine with all manner of commodities -- from iron ore to alloys.
As Asian products make their way around the world, Asian culture is not far behind. Chinese film director Wang Xiaoshuai's Shanghai Dreams -- the tale of a family suffering in the 1980s after their relocation from urban coastal China to the mountainous hinterlands during the 1960s -- is a welcome dose of realism about the country's tumultuous past. Be they filmmakers, national leaders, or managerial wizards, our Stars have much in common -- a bit of daring, plenty of drive, and a real commitment to improving the quality of life in their societies. Such concerns matter, especially when a catastrophe like the tsunami strikes. And they help explain the resilience of a region that continues to fascinate the world.
By Brian Bremner in Hong Kong, with bureau reports