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

China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in AsiaChina Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia. By James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley. New York: Public Affairs, 2004. 418 pages. $30.00. Reviewed by Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, who writes about US and Asia relations from Honolulu.

This excellent book takes off about a third of the way into it where the author asserts: "When dealing with China, it was important to keep one's head on straight."

That is sage counsel from James Lilley, who has served his country well as Ambassador to China, Ambassador to South Korea, and de facto ambassador to Taiwan after an intriguing career as what he calls "a covert foot soldier" in the ranks of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Too often in America today, those who deal with China, whether in politics, government, academia, of the public prints, are polarized into neoconservative demonizers who contend that China can do no right or leftwing panda-huggers who assert that the United States must accommodate China as it acquires more power. Too rare are China hands who have kept their heads on straight.

Lilley, with the help of his journalist son Jeffrey, strolls down memory lane in an account of his childhood in China and the tragic death of his older brother, Frank. He ranges over his education at Yale and his intelligence work in Japan, Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, although without telling much about operations there. He recounts his close affiliation with George Bush the Elder, who was Lilley's boss as Ambassador to China, Director of Central Intelligence, and of course President from 1989 to 1993.

The cohesive thread woven through this well-written memoir, however, is Lilley's association with China. He was the first US intelligence officer to serve in the People's Republic of China when liaison offices were opened in 1973. "In my approach to China," he writes, "I tried to eschew romanticism and excessive emotion." Instead, "I developed a certain remoteness in my scrutiny of the country and its motives."

During his childhood in Tsingtao, Lilley says, "I had begun to understand the Chinese as an appealing but manipulative people with kind of a raw, easily agitated nerve from having been squashed by foreigners. My sense is that China's mixture of grievances derives from a self-centered nationalism--deeply rooted in the Chinese past--which can assume an anti-foreign tone or cast."

Lilley has stern words for the way President Jimmy Carter and his Administration broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established them with the PRC in 1979, although he supported the idea of normalizing relations with China. "Secrecy, timing, and disrespect toward Taiwan," he said in a policy paper, had produced "a bungled, compromise agreement."

"You do not put dilettantes up against pros and come up with favorable results," he concluded in a private memo for Mr. Bush. "We were taken to the cleaners on Taiwan."

Today, a quarter-century later, Taiwan is still the most troublesome issue between Washington and Beijing, and no resolution is in sight. Lilley says that Taiwan has been "outperforming the mainland in many ways" and is "a new kind of Chinese society--prosperous and democratic." American policy needs to reflect this, he says, and he delivers an uppercut to the ill-defined "one-China" policy that has supposedly governed US relations with Beijing for three decades: "There was no need to choose sides between Taiwan and China. You could get along with both."

Lilley is at his best in his chapters on the democratic protest in Tiananmen Square and its aftermath in 1989. He arrived in Beijing on 2 May and "stepped on a volcano." Two days later, he rode his bike to Tiananmen. "Making sure to keep my identity as the American Ambassador secret, I engaged students in conversation, querying them about their hopes and dreams for China." (How a middle-aged Caucasian well over six feet tall kept his identity secret amid a gathering of Chinese is not explained.)

In contrast to his reluctance to write about intelligence operations in Asia, Lilley gives a vivid account that surely adds to the historical record of the Tiananmen episode. He describes how Chinese-speaking embassy officers and their colleagues in the Australian, British, Canadian, French, German, and Japanese embassies fanned out over Beijing to observe, listen, question, and count casualties.

In a particularly hair-raising episode, a Chinese military officer called an American Army attache to warn him to stay away from his apartment from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. the next day. Lilley called a meeting of all embassy people and their families for that time, getting all but two small children out of the way as Chinese soldiers raked the apartments with machine guns. Those children were spared when their Chinese "amah" covered them with her own body as bullets crashed through the windows.

In another revelation, Lilley discloses that on his 63d birthday in 1991, an Iraq hit squad entered China to assassinate him as other teams went to Bangkok, Manila, and Jakarta on similar missions to sabotage American diplomacy. Washington sent a security specialist to guard Lilley, and he began to wear a bulletproof vest and to keep a loaded revolver next to his bed. "I talked with the head of the Chinese Public Security Bureau and he assured me that he could handle the situation," Lilley says. He adds, dryly: "This was one time when I was grateful that ! was living in a police state."

Lilley also tells-all regarding how the US embassy gave safe haven to Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian. They were hidden in a spare room behind the embassy's dispensary, fed and clothed surreptitiously for more than a year, and finally flown out of the country on a US Air Force C-135--after the Chinese insisted that they go through passport control. Looking back, Lilley writes, "Fang was a living symbol of our conflict with China over human rights. It's a battle we have been fighting with the Chinese since normalization more than two decades ago."

Consistent to the end, Lilley has this pragmatic word for all who would have diplomatic, military, of business discourse with China: "China is as it is," he says, "not as we want it to be."