[Viewepoint] Four Asian ‘Persons of the Year’

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[Viewepoint] Four Asian ‘Persons of the Year’

Julian Assange must feel like he was robbed.

Time magazine looked past the suddenly ubiquitous founder of WikiLeaks.org to name Mark Zuckerberg “Person of the Year.” The founder of Facebook Inc. was the safe choice - honor the Internet celebrity connecting people, not riling them. Assange was relegated to runner-up, as was Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Yet Asia produced more than its fair share of contenders in 2010. Time hasn’t chosen an Asian since Taiwan-born scientist David Ho in 1996 and that was after a 10-year drought following Corazon Aquino’s nod in 1986. Here are four Asian options that could easily have supplanted Zuckerberg this year.

Kim Jong-un: Little is known about the twenty-something tipped to lead North Korea when his dad, Kim Jong-il, dies. Yet the succession drama has gone global in a big way. The timing of the North’s deadly attacks on the South this year isn’t a coincidence; the Kim dynasty is in self-preservation mode.

Kim the younger would inherit an impoverished Orwellian state with nuclear weapons and geriatric, reactionary generals who might harbor doubts about a Swiss-educated Michael Jordan fan. At last month’s G-20 Summit in Seoul, I heard more than a few South Korean businessmen refer to Kim as the “nuclear kid.”

How that process goes will say much about the future of Asian markets, credit ratings and regional cooperation - including China’s relationship with neighbors. Kim Jong-un may just turn out to be person of the coming decade.

Liu Xiaobo: It’s hard to think of an individual that China would rather the world talk less about. Officials in Beijing are beyond enraged that the jailed activist won the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a well-deserved honor, and China’s over-the-top reaction was as surreal as it was telling.

China is racing ahead. Its economy grew at a 9.6 percent annualized rate in the third quarter while Europe tries to stave off disaster, American unemployment rises and Japan’s living standards slide. China also has done a far more impressive job than rivals like India in reducing poverty. Its political development is lagging far behind, though, and Liu’s Nobel put the issue in the spotlight as rarely before.

On the one hand, it demonstrated China’s leverage. It was shameful that almost 20 countries including Egypt and Vietnam avoided this month’s Nobel ceremony in Oslo. On the other hand, China’s reaction to the whole business suggests the Communist Party has few plans to loosen up on its 1.3 billion people. We can credit Liu with providing that disappointing insight.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Never one to mince words, Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew seems to have been extra candid in conversations with U.S. diplomats about Myanmar, according to classified documents released by WikiLeaks. He was quoted as calling Myanmar’s junta leaders “stupid” and observing that dealing with them was like “talking to dead people.”

Well, Suu Kyi’s recent release from seven years of house arrest pumped new life into the chances of political reform in one of Asia’s most isolated nations. In her first post-imprisonment speech last month, she said she’s willing to work with Myanmar’s leadership and fellow democracy advocates.

No one believes Myanmar is about to roll out the welcome mat for free markets. Myanmar has been a consistent thorn in Asia’s side for decades. Its inclusion in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations makes a mockery of the 10-member group’s efforts to eliminate borders, European Union-style. With Suu Kyi back in action, progress suddenly has a shot.

Xie Xuren, Zhou Xiaochuan and Zhu Changhong: Xie is China’s finance minister, Zhou runs the central bank and Zhu is chief investment officer overseeing the nation’s $2.7 trillion of currency holdings. At a time when the world economy is reeling, this trio will increasingly hold our attention.

Last week, Portuguese officials could barely contain their glee over Chinese statements of financial support. Jornal de Negocios reported that China is willing to invest 4 billion euros ($5.2 billion) to 5 billion euros in Portuguese government debt in the first quarter of next year. The mere possibility of Chinese support was a tonic for European markets.

Get used to such news items involving cash-rich China. The International Monetary Fund used to be the bailout king. China seems sure to grab that role for developing and developed nations alike. Remember that when the U.S. cuts taxes or adds stimulus it’s effectively borrowing the money from China.

That gives Xie, Zhou and Zhu remarkable leverage over global markets. The next time a Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is about to collapse, you can bet the troubled firm’s executives will ask Beijing for a lifeline. The same goes for the next European domino to fall.

An argument can be made that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was Person-of-the-Year material, along with Zuckerberg and Assange. Wen outmaneuvered the West again and again - on clean energy, rare-earth metals, currencies, blame for global imbalances, you name it. Yet China’s money trio is quickly rising in prominence.

Get ready for the mantra of 2011: Brother, can you spare some yuan?

*The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist.

By William Pesek
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