LOS ANGELES: Hong Kong – “New York in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”

The following interview with Asia Media founder and editor in chief Tom Plate was conducted by G. Bruce Smith of the firm of SMITH WRITING & PR in Culver City, California (http://www.smith-writing-pr.com). The occasion is the U.S. release of Professor Plate’s new book IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUTURE (Marshall Cavendish International Asia, 2014).


Q-&-A With Tom Plate

When you left your position as Editorial Pages Editor for the Los Angeles Times you launched America’s first newspaper column in 1996 devoted to Asia. Why Asia?

The management of The Times offered me the once in a lifetime opportunity to start up an op-ed column. We splashed around a little bit with this and that but the ones in late 1995/early 1996 seemed to work the best. Then-editor Shelby Coffey was particularly enthused about them. We decided early on to stick with Asia. No one was doing it. Someone had to. In terms of destiny, it seemed like the leading newspaper of California was the one to take the lead. The other Times back East already had a monopoly on the Middle East and Europe! Asia was the New Frontier for American newspapering.

What are some of the newspapers, both domestic and abroad, that run your column?

My favorites in Asia are the Japan Times in Tokyo, the Khaleej Times in Dubai and the Korea Times in Seoul. They are my core loyalists. From time to time others pick it up, in Pakistan and elsewhere. And the Straits Times of Singapore and the South China Morning Post, at different times, actually listed me – from Los Angeles – as one of their columnists. In America the Seattle Times and the Providence Journal used to be loyalists, but when their longtime editors resigned, the column was dropped. This has been the pattern across the USA with the shrinkage of news-space and in many instances the near-elimination of the op-ed page. (Even the L.A. Times has none on Saturday.) Young people can barely tell you anything about the Vietnam War, much less the Korean one. The only guys with memory are almost all gone. It is very sad. One dustup with China and all of a sudden journalism on Asia will be back in fashion. I might suddenly be ‘in’ again.

What is your approach to writing about Asia?

My values are reporting, honesty, humility (as much as possible), listening carefully to Asians, minimizing ethnocentricity, maximizing sensitivity, and never looking down at anyone. My vision is not bound by the U.S. interest, perspective or imperial purpose. At the same time, I try not to pull punches. In one of the columns recalled in the new book, I talk about Japanese prime ministers looking “dead.” I am sensitive to Asia and its outlooks. But I call it as I see it. In many respects, Japan is the most accomplished Asian country with the weakest politics. And China is still a question mark.

Why isn’t there more coverage of Asia in the U.S. media?

Editors don’t have the space for it and publishers don’t think it sells.  Besides, leaving aside Afghanistan, we are not at war in Asia. When we are, there will be more coverage (e.g., Syria … it has been there a thousand years but until very recently how many Americans had ever really heard of it?). Then there is the provincialism of U.S. editors.  If they went to graduate school at all, they went to J-school, which is a waste of time, instead of say a foreign policy school, which would be a huge plus. Basically American newspapers have become increasingly irrelevant not only because of the technological revolution but the globalizing one. The decisions of the Bank of China in Beijing have more impact on the average L.A. reader than a robbery at the First National Bank of East Covina. But editors don’t get that.

Also: Perhaps it is because U.S. journalists follow the orientation of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, with its tilt heavily toward Europe and the Middle East. And because Asia seems too complicated, remote and – oh – impossibly Oriental, as if its occupants are not earthlings, but Martians.

Your latest book is “In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia.” Why this book now?

The timing seemed right. The column is coming up to its 20th anniversary this fall. The book is just starting to arrive here in the States. It was time to sum up and look back. And it was interesting for me to review what I had done well and what I had fouled up.

You are well known throughout Asia, and your books, some of them bestsellers, can be found in bookstores, airports and other outlets. Why is that not as true in the United States?

Good question. See above. But thank god for e-books and so on. More and more, American provincialism is less of a problem for Americans who are not provincial.

You had extraordinary access to major Asian leaders, including Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, for the “Giants of Asia” book series. In one or two sentences on each, sum up your impressions of these leaders.

Lee Kuan Yew – Hard as a diamond, smart as a whip, as sentimental as coal (except for his wife). Very easy to interview.

Ban Ki-moon – A tremendous human being, in an impossible job; but history will be kind to him. Very hard to interview.

Malaysia’s iconic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad – Crazy like a fox…makes Machiavelli seem naive…the ultimate juggler. His policies, though oft-criticized, helped keep the country together, prosperous and non-violent for more than two decades…a deep worrier about the future of Islam…fun to interview.

Thailand’s ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – A brilliant financial and economic mind…sharper than even the Wolf of Wall Street, even more controversial. On the whole was the right Rx for Thailand, which now looks a mess…they would have been better off keeping him and accepting bad with good (like every other country). A terrific interview…hugely energetic.

At the same time, as a journalist who held high-level positions at the L.A. Times, Time Magazine and more, you interviewed many senior U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State Warren Christopher. What anecdotes or impressions about these officials can you share?

Christopher – Wise and deep but a huge flop with the mass media; became exasperated with Clinton and had to leave after the first term; deeply knowledgeable about Asia and really tried to help me when I launched the column in the L.A. Times.

Clinton – Too clever by half; as charming as Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but very smart with an astonishing recall memory. Wish he had had a third term to (a) establish the new high bar for U.S. presidents and (b) keep the dumb Texan out of the White House. As a human being, though, I prefer Ban Ki-moon, by far.

What is your view of U.S. media coverage of China, and Chinese media coverage of the U.S.?

Both are inadequate to the monumental task. Both need to consider the other side’s perspective as part of its normal coverage. China’s coverage is dominated by Party orthodoxy, and America’s by American exceptionalism (i.e., we are good and saintly, no one else is). Much better performance levels from the academies of both nations – some university professors on both sides are tremendous and get it. So do businesspersons on both sides.

What’s on your daily reading list?

Too long. The New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal and L.A. Times. Le Monde Diplomatique and The EconomistNew Left Review, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. Quite a few others, including The Oriental Economist (very insightful). But I read all on paper. Can’t stand to read at length online. As for books … all the new books on Asia and U.S. foreign policy that seem unavoidable.

In the past 20 years, you’ve traveled to Asia 60 or so times. Tell us your impressions of some of the cities and countries you’ve been to – not from a political perspective but as an ordinary citizen-visitor?

HONG KONG – New York in a Chinese fortune cookie – never predictable.

SEOUL – A metropolis on steroids…everyone working to make money.

SAIGON (HO CHI MINH CITY) – Like Seoul but more like Vegas than Silicon Valley. Almost everything is for sale and often the price is excellent, especially high fashion.

MELBOURNE – A truly civilized and walkable city.

TOKYO – Very sexy and unappreciated…culture as deep as history … high-end fashion ladies out of some catalogue…politicians a joke…food beyond great.

BEIJING – This is where it is right now…the Tokyo of the eighties. Too governmental though. SHANGHAI is more fun.

SINGAPORE – Perhaps not to everyone’s taste but to mine…in all respects the smartest city of them all, with the smartest people. Dining not better anywhere.

KUALA LUMPUR – Unappreciated…a great zoo and bird park…nice clubs.

BANGKOK – A sad doomed city…cannot talk about it with what is going on now.

JAKARTA – Boom! Boom! Boom! Watch Indonesia carefully…fourth largest population, No. 1 in number of Muslims…big election this year…on my personal Watch List.

NEW DELHI – Not for me…I get fatigued just thinking about it.

What are some of the trends you see emerging in Asia and in U.S.-Asia relations in the next decade?

In Asia the issue of U.S. relations with Islam will grow…the issue of how much to suck up to Beijing and how much to Washington will preoccupy Asian governments. I am a big fan of the idea that the No. 1 story in the next few years could well be Indonesia. K-Pop and other cultural trends are sanding down differences – this is for the good. Asia will continue to rise and probably China too. Therefore, the U.S. has to figure out a way to focus more. Obama has been trying but we are not there yet.


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