SCMP Published on Friday, May 26, 2000


'Power 50' survey proves an embarrassment to all

Asiaweek has again nominated what it hails as the ''Power 50'' of the Asian new economy Asia's 50 most powerful people. The ranking, however, is decided by just 40 journalists from the publication. Gimmicks aside, the results are largely meaningless, as the selection process is neither objective nor representative.

Tycoon Li Ka-shing was voted the most powerful man, outranking President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who occupied the 41st slot last year, failed to make the list this year.

The exercise would have been much more significant, had it been conducted by publications, such as Time, Readers' Digest, Ming Pao, Sing Tao Daily or the Far East Economic Review, which enjoy a wider local or international appeal.

Surprisingly, the local press turned out to be zealous in amplifying the results in the form of screaming headlines. The Apple Daily even ran an editorial to echo Asiaweek's rationale for the ranking. The Hong Kong media appeared to be thrilled by the fact that Mr Li knocked Mr Jiang into second place.

Apple declared: ''Li Ka-shing is indeed more powerful than President Jiang.'' In its news story, the paper quoted the editor-in-chief of Time's Asian edition, questioning the legitimacy of Mr Jiang's claim to the ''Power 50'' throne. ''Has Jiang actually taken part in constructing any physical building? (Li, on the other hand, has developed the Oriental Plaza in Beijing.)'' He concluded that Mr Li was indeed the most powerful person in Asia.

It is, to say the least, puzzling that an editor would come up with such a nonsensical argument. It is even more puzzling that a local paper would repeat that nonsense in print.

Mr Jiang is the paramount leader of 1.2 billion people. China is among the most powerful nations on earth and, many would agree, the most powerful country in Asia.

Mr Jiang would have little difficulty erecting 1,000 Oriental Plazas across the country, should he feel like doing so.

What Mr Li possesses is not power per se, but influence. The power he can muster by no means matches that of Mr Jiang's. Even in Hong Kong, Mr Li is less powerful than Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Mr Jiang has military powers, while Mr Tung has the police force. Both men have political muscles to flex.

By contrast, no matter how many people would bow to his financial strength, Mr Li has little political and no military powers.

The point is even clearer in the context of China. Mr Li's major investments in Hong Kong could run into problems without the blessings of Tung's Executive Council and his executive-led government.

I wonder how many members of the Asiaweek panel of journalists can come up with a clear definition of the crucial word behind the entire ranking exercise ''power''.

Mr Li's ''empires'' of telecommunications, cargo terminals, property and other business domains have extended to the four corners of the world. However, ''empire'' is just a figure of speech. Despite substantial investments overseas, Mr Li and his son, Richard, still do not have any political power as such. There is a Chinese saying: ''The poor should refrain from competing with the rich, and the rich from competing with the officials.'' Apple contended that: ''To win a competition, one must build up an elaborate interpersonal network. The capability of such a coalition is far greater than that of an army or even physical warheads. In this regard, the Li business empire does have an edge over China under the rule of Jiang Zemin.''

Apple's leader writer, however, failed to take on board a simple reality. Practically no enterprise or corporation can afford to say no to Mr Jiang, should he wish to form an alliance and open up the Chinese market to them. Mr Li's cosy relationship with the mainland has contributed to his large pool of commercial allies. Nonetheless, in terms of reliability and guanxi (connections) in China, the choice between Mr Jiang and Mr Li is obvious. Some may think Asiaweek has done Mr Li a favour by naming him as Asia's number one. But this is, in fact, a taboo in China. No one, civilian or official, is supposed to overshadow the political masters.

Mr Li should not even be placed in the same league as Mr Jiang. The ranking is more of an embarrassment, rather than a compliment, to Mr Li. It is a gross overstatement to claim that Mr Li's power now arches over Asia. Banknotes cannot necessarily be translated into power.

Whether a bunch of editors concur or not, Mr Jiang remains undoubtedly the most powerful figure in Asia, unless the meaning of the term is twisted beyond recognition. The difference in protocol observed by United States President Bill Clinton in receiving Mr Jiang and Mr Li perhaps best illustrates the point.