GOOD MOVE, BAD MOVE
By Ricardo Saludo
What makes a good power move? Or a bad one? No, devils and angels have nothing to do with it. Power has one objective: to make things happen, whether good or evil. What things? Whatever the power wielder wants. So one test of a good power move is whether it had the effect it was supposed to have. At the start of Manila's People Power Revolution in 1986, Asiaweek asked Ferdinand Marcos whether there would be a curfew. He promptly ordered one. But nobody paid attention - a clear failure of clout. Indeed, blatant flouting of Marcos's word just accelerated the implosion of his authority. Which brings us to a second criterion for power moves: Did it enhance or erode the wielder's clout?
The most obvious power move is to fight back. Exactly what Hong Kong Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen (No. 19 in the Power 50) did with his summertime stock-market intervention. He beat back the speculators, stabilized the local dollar, helped trim interest rates, and even gave the government an estimated gain of some $10 billion on the stock portfolio it built up. Not to mention augmenting Tsang's clout and popularity. Also standing up to the enemy was Joseph Estrada (No. 13). Earlier this year the Philippine president refused to negotiate with rebels holding military hostages and forced them to give up their captives without getting concessions. The communists will think twice before trying that again.
Tough talk can also boost power. Last July, Chinese President Jiang Zemin (No. 3) debated on TV with his visiting U.S. counterpart Bill Clinton, covering such taboo topics as Tibet and human rights. That the joust ended in a draw boosted Jiang's prestige at home; that it happened at all helped blunt criticism of Clinton's China policy in the U.S. Soon after Jiang's bold broadcast, on the other hand, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (No. 41) did little for his own public ratings by not being seen or heard in the worst days of the Chek Lap Kok airport opening fiasco. He could learn a thing or two from fellow Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing (No. 9), who, amid criticism of his property firm and of the prosecution of his elder son's kidnappers, let loose strong words about the city's attitude toward business - and got better treatment afterward.
Saber-rattling is another common way to show clout. Or in Kim Jong Il's case (No. 4), rocket-rattling. The North Korean dictator's launch of a projectile over Japan into the North Pacific helped get his bankrupt, starving nation more attention and aid from Tokyo and Washington. But missile-flexing did not give as much of a boost to Indian PM A.B. Vajpayee (No. 40) and his opposite number in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif (No. 33). After last year's nukes, their medium-range rockets were somewhat anti-climactic, and they cancel out in the subcontinental arms equation. Moreover, the domestic ills both leaders faced were too big to be diminished in the public mind by pyrotechnics. In particular, reluctance to rein in the Hindu right's attacks on Christians and meddling in economic policy hurt Vajpayee.
The Asian Economic Crisis offered many opportunities for strong moves, and they weren't wasted on joint Power 50 top placers Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Zhu Rongji of China. Kim's credit squeeze to force the chaebol to shed or swap non-core interests has so far won him kudos from the markets and the media, even though the business sense behind such forced corporate transplants and excisions remains to be seen. Zhu took on his own share of giants, shutting down over-extended international trust and investment companies, despite grumblings in the financial community both inside and outside China. For his part, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (No. 6) showed that he too didn't flinch at tough anti-Crisis action. His government decreed a 15% pay cut - a measure applauded for helping keep the city-state competitive.
And what of Asia's most famous dueling pairs of rulers and renegades? In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi (No. 47) kept the world watching her country during her big standoffs with the junta: three sit-ins in a car stopped from leaving Yangon, the latest last July; and her husband's failed attempt to visit her one final time before his death in March. The generals got their way but at high cost in international disgrace. As for Malaysian reform advocate Anwar Ibrahim (No. 27), has he gained clout by standing up to Mahathir Mohamad (No. 14)? Were the PM's ouster and the subsequent jailing and prosecution of his rival a good play? Plainly, some power thrusts cannot be judged until the final outcome of the battle royal they are part of.
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