American spy and diplomat admired in Beijing
By Jurek Martin
Published: November 21 2009 00:58 | Last updated: November 21 2009 00:58
Jim Lilley was the quintessential American “China hand”. He was born there, spoke the language fluently from childhood, spied against China for the CIA and ultimately became US ambassador in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989.
Perhaps his greatest diplomatic achievement was being held in the highest regard both by the Chinese government and its adversary Taiwan – he remains the only American to have served as head of US missions in both.
Quintessential China hand: Lilley
After Tiananmen, of which he was extremely critical, he lobbied his old friend and former CIA colleague, President George H.W. Bush, to temper US reactions.
In the early 1980s, when head of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto embassy, he successfully urged the Reagan administration, in which Mr Bush was vice-president, to resist Chinese pressure to cut off all arms sales to the island nation, implementing instead a gradual reduction.
His relationship with Mr Bush did much for his career. He had been CIA station chief in Beijing when Mr Bush was head of the mission from 1974-76, from which he was appointed to become director general of the agency. He always had a hotline to the future president and did not hesitate to use it.
James Roderick Lilley was born in 1928, in the coastal city of Qingdao, known for its German-run brewery. His father sold kerosene from a junk on the Yangtze River for Standard Oil and his mother was a teacher. The family, including his older brother Frank, lived comfortably in the international community and the two boys, attended by a Chinese nanny, were bilingual in Mandarin and English from an early age. He fondly remembered playing catch with a young occupying Japanese soldier, an experience similar to those recalled by the British author J.G. Ballard in his Shanghai-based Empire of the Sun.
The family returned to the US in 1940 and Jim duly followed his brother to Yale, while also serving for a year in the US Army at the end of the second world war, and later earned a master’s degree from George Washington University.
Frank Lilley, however, committed suicide just outside Hiroshima in Japan in 1946, a seminal event for Jim. As he wrote in his 2004 memoir, China Hands, Frank was “a dreamer, pacifist and philosopher”.
“I developed differently, eschewing romantics and excessive emotion and [was] inclined to deal with facts and forces as they presented themselves. I felt it was important to stay away from disillusionment,” he wrote.
These convictions led him, naturally, into the CIA in 1951, with the Korean War raging, as a self-described “foot soldier in America’s covert efforts to keep Asia from being dominated by Communist China”. For more than 20 years he ran agents, debriefed travellers and operated undercover himself all over Asia, culminating in his direction of the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos as the conflict in Vietnam turned sour.
His first formal ambassadorship, from 1986-89, was in South Korea, doubtless courtesy of Vice President Bush. The country was in turmoil in opposition to the authoritarian rule of President Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized power in a coup in 1979. There had been a massacre of protesting students in Kwangju, the opposition leader Kim Dae-jung had been jailed, and Mr Chun, who was admired by President Ronald Reagan, was considering imposing martial law.
The new ambassador took the unusual and controversial step of ingratiating himself with Mr Chun, unlike other foreign diplomats. This gave him the leverage he needed to deliver messages from Washington, which he had helped craft, warning the US would not support a further crackdown. The outcome was South Korea’s first democratic elections in 16 years and Jim Lilley’s reward was Beijing.
From the beginning, he liked to get around the Chinese capital on his bicycle, then the universal mode of transportation, and was able to talk reasonably freely with those he met. He sensed trouble was brewing but was powerless to stop what happened on June 4, 1989. He had no problems immediately calling a spade a spade, using the word “massacre” even when his own government was reluctant to use it for fear of offending the Chinese government.
He went beyond the verbal, too, though his frank dispatches from Beijing were often sent directly to President Bush. For a year, he housed the prominent dissident physicist Fang Lizhi in his embassy before he was allowed to leave China. He even criticised James Baker, the secretary of state, for a “bad miscalculation” in allowing US warships to pay a courtesy visit to Shanghai a month before Tiananmen because it may have left the impression with the Chinese leadership that the US would not object to any crackdown on the growing dissident movement.
But, in the aftermath, he mostly worked to keep Beijing-Washington connections on as even a keel as possible, not easy given the outrage expressed in America and around the world. He arranged for discreet visits of senior US officials to Beijing to offer assurances that the US still valued its relationship with China. When he left China in 1991, his farewell parties were attended by large crowds, a testament to the esteem in which he was held.
Subsequently, back in Washington, he occupied himself with a China consultancy business, a perch at a think-tank, public speaking and lecturing at US universities and writing his memoirs with his son. He died last week and is survived by his wife of 55 years, the former Sally Booth, and three sons.
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