China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia

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9781586483432: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia
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James Lilley's life and family have been entwined with China's fate since his father moved to the country to work for Standard Oil in 1916. Lilley spent much of his childhood in China and after a Yale professor took him aside and suggested a career in intelligence, it became clear that he would spend his adult life returning to China again and again.

Lilley served for twenty-five years in the CIA in Laos, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Taiwan before moving to the State Department in the early 1980s to begin a distinguished career as the U.S.'s top-ranking diplomat in Taiwan, ambassador to South Korea, and finally, ambassador to China. From helping Laotian insurgent forces assist the American efforts in Vietnam to his posting in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, he was in a remarkable number of crucial places during challenging times as he spent his life tending to America's interests in Asia. In China Hands, he includes three generations of stories from an American family in the Far East, all of them absorbing, some of them exciting, and one, the loss of Lilley's much loved and admired brother, Frank, unremittingly tragic.

China Hands is a fascinating memoir of America in Asia, Asia itself, and one especially capable American's personal history.

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About the Author:

During a government career spanning four decades, James Lilley served in the CIA, White House, State Department, and Defense Department. He is the only American to have served as the head of the American missions in Beijing, where he was ambassador from 1989-1991, and Taiwan, where he was Director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1982-1984. He also served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1986-1989. He is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jeffrey Lilley is a journalist. He lives in Silver Springs, Maryland, with his wife and two sons.

From The Washington Post:

James Lilley served on the operations side of the CIA, working on China, from 1951-74. He then switched to analysis and diplomacy, serving as U.S. representative in Taipei in 1982-84 and ambassador in Beijing in 1989-91, among other posts. One therefore combs his memoir for hints about how well U.S. intelligence understood China over those 40 years.

Until 1972, China was tightly closed. If there were significant intelligence triumphs, they remain confidential. But Lilley is frank about the frustrations. The agency's air-dropped agents disappeared, agency-supported Kuomintang military probes fizzled, the British authorities in Hong Kong forbade the Americans to try to penetrate Chinese offices there until 1968, and around the same time the CIA discovered that its main partner, Taiwan intelligence, was thoroughly compromised. Until Nixon opened China in 1972, the CIA seems to have known little more about the Chinese famine, the cultural revolution or Mao's interest in an opening to the United States than did any of the diligent graduate students who were, like them, sitting in Hong Kong interviewing refugees and decoding official propaganda.

Lilley went to Beijing in 1973 as the first CIA station chief, with Mao's consent (given to Kissinger). He could not do any real spying, but he biked around the city mapping safe houses, noted military installations and set up a secure communications channel inside the U.S. mission. He formed a close relationship with the second head of the office, George H.W. Bush, who years later appointed him to the China ambassadorship. Back in Washington, he played a key role in initiating intelligence-sharing with Beijing directed against the Soviet Union. Lilley hints at a later enhancement of this arrangement but does not explain it.

In Taiwan from 1982-84, Lilley met often with president Chiang Ching-kuo and other leaders in and out of government. He alludes to excellent U.S. intelligence on all aspects of politics on the island but doesn't say how it was obtained, other than through direct conversations.

Lilley's ambassadorship in China began just as the Tiananmen crisis was peaking. U.S. diplomats observed the demonstrators and troops from monitoring points and vehicles and by listening in, with permission, on ABC-TV's internal radio communications. Military attaché Larry Wortzel received a telephone tip-off to get people out of the diplomatic apartments before the People's Liberation Army raked the buildings with rifle fire. "Contacts" provided some insight into debates among the Chinese leadership. An informant in Hong Kong warned the CIA of a possible Chinese attempt to seize pro-democracy leader Fang Lizhi from his refuge in the U.S. embassy.

But there is more to China Hands than spying. Lilley was present at the creation of George H.W. Bush's special relationship with Deng Xiaoping in 1977. He offers new information on the internal U.S. government battle over the August 1982 communiqué with China that was supposed to limit U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and also sheds light on a secret Ronald Reagan memo for the file that immediately rendered the communiqué a dead letter. He also revisits Reagan's simultaneous "six assurances" to Taiwan that promised no pressure to negotiate with Beijing. He describes his role in preparing the way for controversial arms sales to Taiwan, particularly the Indigenous Defense Fighter and the F-16 aircraft.

And the book covers more than China. There is the secret war in Laos, which Lilley helped direct in 1965-68. Lilley's most stirring professional moment may have come during his 1986-88 ambassadorship to Korea, when he delivered a letter from President Reagan to Korean president Chun Doo Hwan that he believes helped avert a military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Young people considering diplomatic careers will notice that Lilley and his family moved almost every two years. The personal burden and that on wife and kids are quietly acknowledged. Was it worth it? Not only was good information hard to get, but Lilley also often felt that even when he had it his memos were not read, including when he was serving in Washington. He laments one cable in particular warning of an imminent crackdown on the student demonstrators in Beijing that went unseen by President Bush during Tiananmen. It seems that the bigger the issues one is dealing with, the harder it is to discern any individual influence on the outcome.

This memoir is also part of a lifelong effort to come to terms with the tragic early suicide of James's beloved elder brother, Frank -- an effort shared by James's son Jeffrey, a journalist who joined his father in writing the book. The moving early chapters describe the idyllic childhoods of James and his two handsome, athletic older brothers, when their father worked for Standard Oil in neo-colonial Tsingtao. In retrospect, the grown-up Lilley ponders how easily modern psychiatry might have treated Frank's depression and forestalled the damage his suicide wrought on everyone in the family.

The great lesson James drew from Frank's death was to "stay away from disillusionment." That preference for detachment and realism served James Lilley well in a career of unusual achievement that spanned four decades of American influence in Asia.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Nathan


Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.

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