It’s supremely fitting that China’s Warren Buffett got caught in Beijing’s anti-graft net. By disappearing business guru Guo Guangchang in ways that spooked investors, authorities reminded us of the naked truth behind their opaque and arbitrary campaign to end corruption: it’s as much about settling personal scores as cleaning up China Inc.
That’s why President Xi Jinping gets the first of our annual Naked Awards. As Buffett famously said, it’s only when the tide goes out that we learn who’s been skinny dipping. And 2015 was a banner year for nakedness, when economies lost their mojo, leaders and corporate chieftains lost their way and many an investment portfolios proved to be bottomless. Without further ado, here are the personalities, companies and dustups that accessorized Asia’s year. Drum roll, please!
Nude Emperor Award: Sorry to broach the image (some readers may be eating), but Xi has long been cloaked more in the style of a royal than China’s latest president. His government’s bizarre purge of Fosun’s Guo (he has since reappeared) devastated the company’s shares and probably has more executives than ever moving assets abroad. Yet it’s emblematic of a strongman who talks a great game of reform, but acts fearfully. The epic stock-market rescue last summer alone suggests there’s more panic than confidence in Beijing as growth slows, bad debts mount and Xi’s insecurities look awfully exposed.
House of Cards Award: To Malaysia’s Najib Razak, who spent the year veering from scandal to scandal, crisis to crisis. When the Wall Street Journal followed the money — $700 million into his personal accounts — Team Najib’s first impulse was to blame us meanies in the foreign media. The next was to essentially say “Oh, that. Not a big deal.” Tell that to currency traders dumping the ringgit and multinational executives washing their hands of the place. It’ll be fascinating to see where Najib’s narcissism leads him, and his nation, next year. Not to worry, his party can always arrest opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim again to distract us when the going gets tough.
Worst Company Award: Hands down, this one goes to Japan’s Takata Corp., whose deadly air bags deflated the national brand in a year when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pushed the Japan-is-back line. The murkiness and cluelessness of its response risked driving Japan Inc. icons Honda and Toyota off the road. It also made a mockery of the zeitgeist of executives adopting international best practices (Toshiba’s deepening accounting scandal didn’t help). Abe should name and shame executives punching holes in his narrative of an open-minded, resurgent Japan. Takata CEO Shigehisa Takada is target No. 1.
China Envy Award: To Donald Trump, the U.S. presidential wannabe who suggests turning off segments of the Internet to fight terrorism. The idea drips with irony: A guy who blames Beijing’s policies for stealing American jobs favors embracing them when it suits his fear-mongering campaign. Honorable mention goes to Mark Zuckerberg, who is anxious to get China to “like” Facebook’s entry into the most populous nation. There’s irony here, too. Xi’s Community Party and Facebook, after all, share a similar business model: both oversee 1 billion-plus populations losing their privacy, exert total control over personal data, loath Google and probably think the other is the perfect foil in his desire to rule cyberspace.
Deja vu Award: To BHP Billiton, which showed that its reputation for arrogance and running roughshod over small communities is well deserved. The latest crisis involves the BHP-Vale joint dam venture Samarco Mineracao in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Its death toll and environmental damage has many buzzing that this is Andrew Mackenzie’s Ok Tedi, a previous BHP disaster in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s and 1990s. Might BHP confound skeptics who figure the mining giant will stick to its typical playbook and skirt responsibility? The year ahead offers BHP ample opportunities to do the right thing. Will it?
Cop-Out Award: To India’s Narendra Modi for being a standout amid weak Asian participation in this month’s COP 21 climate deal in Paris. And that’s saying something considering how China, Japan and South Korea didn’t wait for the ink to dry before accelerating plans to open new coal-fired power plants at odds with efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. While China, too, cried poverty in refusing to go bigger on its commitments, India was all but invisible. Odd, considering how many of its major cities are on the front line of the storms resulting from climate change.
Good News Award: To Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who figures that if he can’t get journalists to celebrate him in print he may as well own them. Many argue Ma is merely pulling a Jeff Bezos. Just as the Amazon.com founder saved the Washington Post, Ma is rescuing the South China Morning Post . Yet Ma’s acquisition could be ominous. Beijing’s censors have been pressuring the paper to soften its hard-hitting China coverage in recent years. Ma, meanwhile, is more a creature of the Communist Party than Wall Street likes to admit. What is Alibaba if not a party-enabled combination of monopolies Ma’s benefactors could break up anytime? Good news for Ma could be bad for press freedom in Hong Kong.
Name Game Award: To the women of Japan who saw the Supreme Court uphold a 19th century code requiring married couples to share the same name. That’s code for women submit to your husbands, and it’s a big blow to the nation’s admittedly weak feminist movement. How about a lifeline, Prime Minister Abe, “Mr. Womenonics” himself? If 2015 is any guide, that won’t happen. In fact, among the women Abe named to his Cabinet are those in favor of couples being forced to use one name. Better luck, ladies, with the next prime minister.
Dodgy Governance Award: As if 2015 hasn’t been crap enough for Samsung, heir apparent Lee Jae-yong has an insider-trading scandal to deal with. And it’s largely his fault. I’m not saying Lee was in on the stock front-running, but the merger that enticed some Samsung staffers into questionable trading was Lee’s doing. The nontransparent way it was carried out, against the wishes of many shareholders, set the stage for a self-inflicted wound making headlines around the globe. Not good for a company whose chairman, Lee’s hospitalized father Lee Kun-hee, was convicted six years ago of tax evasion and embezzlement.
Kiss My Ring Award: To Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou for meeting China’s Xi, the first such summit in almost seven decades. It enraged millions of Taiwanese who abhor Ma’s bid to cozy up to a government aiming a couple of thousand warheads their way. Granted, Ma is desperate to buttress his thin legacy ahead of elections next year that his Kuomintang party is expected to lose decisively. Ma kissing Xi’s ring will be remembered more as an act of desperation than bold leadership. Emperor Xi even blocked his press conference with Ma from Chinese television, as clear a sign as any the cross-strait detente process has no clothes.
William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia. www.barronsasia.com
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