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Photo montage by Adam Connors

William West/AFP
Li's Falungong is losing members to jail, but in the long run, the faith may grow stronger

Good Times And Bad

Timing, a stock market player would say, is everything. So might a head of state, a battle commander, even a spiritual guru. Indeed, over the past year, many a power move went well or haywire due to good or bad timing.

Just ask Power 50 dropout B.J. Habibie. He lost Indonesia's presidency to Abdurrahman Wahid (No. 7 in the ranking) partly because of the mass mayhem that marred East Timor's referendum on independence last August. And why did the vote get all blasted and bloody? Timing. Early last year Habibie decided he'd like the East Timor problem resolved by January, as if decades of conflict could be switched off on deadline. He did meet his Y2K date, but even advocates of East Timor freedom would have preferred a less explosive, if more gradual, transition.

Philippine President Joseph Estrada (No. 24) also set a date for ending a separatist rebellion. He told Asiaweek in February that if there was no peace pact with Muslim insurgents by June, his forces would fight for victory by December. Now if you were on the receiving end of Estrada's ultimatum, what would you do in the months before his announced date for escalating hostilities? You got it: since they couldn't win a conventional war, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the extremist Abu Sayyaf have intensified guerrilla attacks, bombings and hostage-taking.

You won't catch Velupillai Prabhakaran (No. 48) announcing war dates. The dreaded leader of Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil Tigers knows the advantage of surprise. That's what his forces employed last month in their successful assault on the army's garrison at Elephant Pass, gateway to the Jaffna Peninsula, which they aim to retake after five years. The Tigers' timing was fearsomely perfect: President Chandrika Kumaratunga (No. 49) was abroad; her troops were lulled by Easter holidays.

Li Hongzhi (No. 38), the shadowy head of China's Falungong spiritual movement, also sprang a surprise with the unannounced rally of 10,000 followers outside the Zhongnanhai compound housing top leaders over a year ago. Beijing eventually reasserted its power and cracked down on the Falungong. Since then, its members have been more predictable, protesting on well-known dates like Li's claimed May 13 birthday and the anniversary of the April 25, 1999, demonstration. Is it a foolish move for the Falungong to virtually march into the waiting arms of security forces?

Again, it's timing. In the short term, it does seem like a losing battle for Falungong members to be beaten and arrested virtually every day. But if they keep this up month after month -- Li claims to have millions of followers across China -- the police and the government could be worn down, if they don't run out of jail cells first. Meanwhile, tales of Falungong defiance will inspire many more to greater faith.

The long and short of it are also key to other power moves the past year. In the short term, the Sultan of Brunei (No. 46) took a hit to his prestige with the financial probe of his wayward brother that his government made. But taking Prince Jefri to task would help restore the sultan's public standing in the long run.

Outgoing Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui (No. 28) may have made a similar trade-off. His clash with the popular James Soong cost their party the presidency. But the victory of oppositionist Chen Shui-bian (No. 6) has ensured that Lee's vision of an assertive Taiwan will thrive.

Pakistan coupmaker Gen. Pervez Musharraf (No. 25) committed what is arguably a monumental mistake in weighing short- and long-term geopolitical interests. Two years ago, his country came out ahead of India in the eyes of the world when both detonated nuclear bombs -- the Indians starting that lap of the subcontinental arms race. But last year Pakistan's intrusion into Indian-controlled Kashmir -- a Musharraf idea -- cast his nation as villain and earned a U.S. rebuke. The general's October coup further eroded Islamabad's favor with the West. When Bill Clinton visited South Asia in March, India seemed set to replace Pakistan as America's strategic ally in the subcontinent. What's worse, the U.S. has cited Pakistan as a source of terrorism.

Sometimes a good move doesn't look so great if it is forced by outside pressure. Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's anti-pollution plan is laudable, but it came only after prodding from the business community and alarming air quality reports.

Good timing, of course, is often thanks to good luck, and this year's Power 50 topnotcher, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing had oodles of both. From the sale of his group's cellphone operation in Britain to the listing in Hong Kong and his son Richard Li's (No. 14) takeover of the territory's telephone giant HKT, the family rode the dotcom boom. Will the gains last? Naturally, only time will tell.

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