Monday, November 21, 2005

China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia ? by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley

China Hands is the memoirs of Ambassador James Lilley written with the assistance of his journalist son. James Lilley begins his life tale with a brief background of his Father and how he came to be a worker for Standard Oil in China in the early 1900s. The family grew up in China and James himself was born in Tsingtao, China. Of course the events of WWII and specifically Japan’s savage war in China had a direct impact on the Lilley family. In following these events we mostly view the family and the war through the eyes of James’ older brother Frank since James was still very young during those days. His brother Frank on the other hand, as we learn, was very much affected and involved in events and left a treasure of letters and diaries which bring events to life. It is to his brother Frank, who committed suicide while in Japan stationed in a suburb of Hiroshima, that the book is dedicated.

Lilley proceeds neatly through his youth and education at Exeter and Yale to explain the events that led him to join the CIA ? along with many other from Yale and his class. From there we progress through the career of a CIA operative in notably in Japan, Hong Kong, and Laos during the CIA secret efforts to support anti-Viet cong guerrillas Laotian tribes. He becomes the first CIA officer to legally enter China to join the original American diplomatic mission in Communist China. It was during this tenure that he met and became friends with future president George Bush. It is always beneficial to make friends with the rich and powerful.

By the time George Bush became Vice President for Ronald Reagan, Lilley had retired from the CIA and was ripe for the picking to join the new administration. First as a staffer in the NSC but then he was quickly promoted up to become the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan which served in lieu of an embassy after relation with mainland China had thawed. Lilley’ next appointment ? and the role for which I knew him best ? was Ambassador to South Korea. James was present in Korea during the 1987-88 democratic transition and his key accomplishment during his tenure was to push for an appointment in which he personally handed a letter from the US president and urged Chun Doo Hwan to not announce martial law to quash the demonstrations; an act which is believed to have influenced Chun’s decision positively to that end.

His final appointment, and one that gets a lot of coverage, is his tenure as US Ambassador to China. He arrives just in time for the Tiananmen massacre. The personal account of what was going on is detailed and includes the kind of little stories and heroes that make personal accounts by those who were there so worthwhile. Lilley doesn’t try to steal the spotlight of his own actions during this time but outlines the efforts and struggles faced by the Embassy and gives credit to those who shone during such difficult times to exceed in their job and their duty to American citizens. This is a thoughtful, well-written book. Despite being a bit slow in some parts, its strength lying in personal accounts of tumultuous events in Asian history to which he was not only witness but an actor.

I met James Lilley in 2004 where he gave the opening speech for the Human Rights in North Korea Awareness Week at Stanford. As part of the organising committee I presented him with a ‘thank-you’ gift. I didn’t really have a chance to speak to him but I was impressed that he is still actively working in areas that concerned him during his career and that he has long been a supporter of promoting human rights in China and elsewhere in the world.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui