The Asia Desk

In 1995, after heading the Los Angeles Times editorial page for six years, Tom Plate decided he would rather write a column. The normal subjects for a major newspaper column back then included Washington, D.C., and Wall Street.

Plate picked Asia.

There were two obstacles. Plate had never been a foreign correspondent. Even more challenging was he knew little about Asia.

Yet there was a compelling reason for Plate to plunge ahead with a column that has now run for 17 years, first in the Los Angeles Times and then through syndication in the United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and elsewhere. No U.S. columnist was regularly covering Asia at a time when Asia was changing in ways that would eventually rock the global economy. “Asia was a sleeping giant, but as it woke up, American media were asleep at the switch,” he says.

Plate’s columns, which have appeared in The Japan Times, The Korea Times and elsewhere, and four books on the region’s leaders — the “Giants of Asia” series — are widely read by Asians and Americans alike. But he wears another hat: Plate is professor and distinguished scholar for Asia and Pacific Studies at LMU, passing his knowledge on to a new generation of students.

He teaches three courses on Asian politics and news media as well as an online course run jointly by LMU and United Arab Emirates University. He also oversees The New Asia Media, an online Asian news digest that his students manage and write. The digest is a mix of original reporting, first person stories and summaries of news from foreign news sources. For instance, senior Lani Luo, an immigrant from China who is the digest’s assistant managing editor, wrote of her experience in Chinese schools. She also reported on the fall from grace of Bo Xilai, a major Chinese official caught up in a corruption scandal.

While the digest sharpens students’ reporting and writing skills, it also increases their knowledge of a region vital to America’s future. “You learn the dynamics of the political atmosphere of Asia,” says Luo.

The Next Generation
Plate’s students exercise sophisticated editorial judgment in a medium that now rivals traditional print outlets in importance. That gives the digest an unusual perspective. “This is a view of Asia from the eyes of 21-year-olds,” says Plate. “It’s the viewpoint of our next generation of leaders.”

As a hybrid, The New Asia Media site has three hooks to lure students — journalism, writing and international affairs. Yet at the outset, Plate wasn’t sure anyone would be interested in taking on the work. His concerns were misplaced. Students have signed up and stuck with it even though it is time consuming and awards only one credit hour toward graduation.

Though the digest may seem to be a training ground for reporters, none of the students is planning on a journalism career. Instead, Plate’s students are gaining skills that should serve them well in their professional lives, regardless of what they do. One of these skills is the ability to write clearly and concisely.

“It’s a different way to teach writing, which is one of the most difficult skills to teach,” says Plate. “Teaching writing is really in the category of teaching a foreign language.”

If you can write well, he says, you gain an edge over those who can’t. “If you’re going to law school and you can write a legal brief that’s clear, your law professor will love you and a law firm will hire you,” Plate says.

“But across the country, the ability to write clearly is declining,” he says. “This is one of the reasons we can’t get consensus politically. If two sides can’t communicate, it’s impossible to reach consensus.”

The fact that students are working for a news website that anyone can access adds to the pressure to write well. “One way to teach writing,” says Plate, “is to make them write about something that’s contemporary and salient that someone will want to read. I don’t know if millions of people are reading the site now, but they will at some point.”

Plate also applies a tried and true mechanism to boost his student’s abilities — repetition. Anyone who has learned to play a sport, memorized multiplication tables or mastered a musical instrument knows the value of repetition. “They keep doing it until they raise their level of competence,” Plate says. It helps that he holds their feet to the fire, requiring attendance at three of four monthly luncheon meetings where he hammers away at the standards he wants them to meet.

The best measure of how the students are doing is, of course, the quality of their work. “We look at how they wrote the first month, compared to what they’re doing now. Everyone in the room is a better writer than they were a year ago,” says Plate. “That, to me, is a litmus test of success.”

The Tenacity Lesson
Beyond writing, the course teaches research skills and tenacity. It’s hard to put together a news digest of a region half a world away, particularly when the subject is China.

“China censors everything from top to bottom,” says Luo. So she scans Internet postings by individuals who have managed to elude the censors. “With the Internet, people are able to express themselves a little more freely,” she says. She uses these posts to fill out news accounts from other sources.

While students benefit from the project, so does LMU. The website is helping to put the university on the map in Asia. Anybody who enters the words “Asia media” in an Internet search engine will get LMU’s New Asia Media site first. “The site brings attention to LMU in Asia and everywhere else it is read,” Plate says.

Away from LMU, Plate functions frequently as an educator. He wants readers of his columns and books to see China and the rest of Asia as it is, not as they might like to think of it.

“In the U.S., we think the world revolves around America,” says Plate. “And until recently, the geopolitical universe did have just one sun, the U.S. Everyone orbited around that. But all of a sudden comes a second sun — China. Now all the other countries have to reorient their orbits.”

When Plate began his column, Americans tended to focus on the region's odd stories rather than its economic and political transformations. For example, when a young American in Singapore was convicted in 1993 of spraying graffiti, he was sentenced to caning. The story riveted U.S. readers.

Plate wanted Americans to see that there was more to Asia than caning. So he immersed himself in his new beat by making six to nine trips a year there. Soon, Plate was breaking stories. In 1997, for example, he was the first U.S. journalist to warn that Thailand’s currency crisis would spread and eventually impact the global economy. It did.

The Full Picture
Plate, through his columns, has consistently bucked the prevailing journalistic view of Asia. That has taken courage, as Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly and an international politics commentator, observed in a review of one of Plate’s books.

“There are two types of courage among journalists,” Gardels wrote. “Some might risk crossing paths with an IED on a back road in Afghanistan. Many fewer risk their reputations by going against the herd of conventional opinion.” Plate, he wrote, was one of the few.

Plate admits he doesn’t fit the usual Asia specialist’s mold. “I’m a bit of an anomaly in that my Asia column arose out of a career in the United States rather than from working as a correspondent. I tell my students at LMU that I have never been the brave foreign correspondent who suffered from snakebites and barbed wire. I describe myself as a Hotel Shangri-La correspondent.”

Plate’s path to Asia specialist was roundabout. He majored in political science at Amherst College then earned a master’s degree in public and international affairs from Princeton. His journalism career included stops at Newsday, New York Magazine, The Daily Mail of London and Newsweek before landing at the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “Why did I switch so much? I think it’s because of attention deficit disorder in some ways,” says Plate. “After three or four years, I would get restless.”

His is an information-driven life. “I’m a voracious reader,” he says. Plate’s favorite fiction authors revel in worldwide settings: James Bond-creator Ian Fleming, spy writer John Le Carré, and Graham Greene, whose fictional universe ranges from espionage and colonialism to Catholicism.

On the job, Plate is something of a workaholic. Frenetic, 60-hour workweeks are normal: “I’m at my best in fourth or fifth gear. I have to be humming along. Then I think my writing is better.” Plate also fills his time with preparing for his classes, turning out his column and writing his “Giants of Asia” books. Best-sellers in Asia, the “Giants” series is based on extended tape-recorded interviews and filled with additional research to help put those conversations in perspective.

The books provide insights to the mindset of leaders shaped by philosophical and religious traditions far different from those of the West. Asia is a mix of Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, Zen and other influences. One leader spoke with Plate about the sustaining power of meditation — something unlikely to be uttered by an American president. “Cultural differences shape your brain a little bit differently,” Plate says.

Plate has yet to interview a major leader from China and he doesn’t know if he will. The leader first has to be willing to talk to him. So he has concentrated on other leaders who have consented to interviews, such as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister (1959–90). Lee embraced capitalism and transformed his tiny nation of less than six million people from an economic backwater into one of the most prosperous nations on Earth.

The Singapore Example
But Lee’s influence spread far beyond Singapore. In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a former Maoist, visited Lee and was struck by Singapore’s economic progress. “Deng’s visit to Singapore became known as something of a widely heralded crash-course in rapid state-driven, capitalistic development, with Lee as Friendly Collegial Tutor,” Plate wrote in “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew.”

Deng went home to set China on the road to capitalism, and his gamble worked: China boomed. “China has lifted 300 million people out of poverty since the fall of Mao,” Plate says. “Historians say nothing like that has ever been done before.” But Lee’s impact didn’t end there. China siphoned American industrial jobs, Plate says, hollowing out the economies of our industrial belts. A study by the Economic Policy Institute put the loss at 2.1 million jobs from 2001 to 2011.

“My work on Asia has always had a point,” Plate says. “Asia is going to be a big deal whether I like it, whether American presidents like it, or whether labor unions like it. So we’re going to have to deal with Asia.”

Doug McInnis covers science, business and many other things from his mile-high base in Wyoming. He has written for The New York Times, Popular Science and scores of other publications.


We asked Tom Plate to give us a quick glimpse at three countries whose leaders he has interviewed in his “Giants of Asia” series.

Singapore — Putting brains first.
Meritocracies are not common in Asia. But give legendary founder Lee Kuan Yew, now 90, credit. Human rights groups never liked him, and U.S. journalists deplored his government’s grip on the media. But facts are facts: This former British colony is famously non-corrupt, and its citizens richer on average than Americans. It’s a marvel of political genius, Confucian consensus, multiracial-ethnic citizenship and a Tiger-nanny approach that prioritizes education and hi-tech. 5-star rating.

Malaysia — Putting Muslims first.
If the West seeks moderate Muslim governments as allies, why does it tend to overlook this mellow land? Thanks in part to the moderates-Malays-first political legacy of irascible yet long-reigning Mahathir Mohamad (1982 to 2003), this verdant country should remind us all that gifted, centrist Muslim politicians offer the West a far more effective counterplot to the jihad of radical Islam than drone attacks. 4-star rating.

Thailand — Putting monarchy first.
For decades the world’s longest-reigning king, now in frail health, has been the fulcrum of this gorgeous but troubled country with the population of Great Britain, the size of France and a military that doesn’t stay in the barracks. It’s a mess. Controversial, thrice-elected Thaksin Shinawatra, a determined modernizer, was coup-ed out in 2006; today his sister Yingluck holds the prime minister’s job amid rumors her brother pulls the strings — thus triggering new takeover rumors. 3-star rating.