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"From mid-April until early June of 1989, Tiananmen Square filled with more and more demonstrators. This crowd passes in front of three symbols of China’s struggle — in the furthest background is Mao’s Mausoleum, in front of that is the Monument to the Martyrs of the Revolution, then the Goddess of Democracy." (Photo/Susan Burghardt)


From The Asian Reporter, V15, #2 (January 11, 2005), page 15.

Hands that shaped the world

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

By James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley

PublicAffairs, 2004

Hardcover, 417 pages, $30.00

By Andrew J. Weber

Whatever insinuations his enemies might make against him — and he has many; an Iraqi agent was once sent to assassinate him during the first Gulf War — none can match up with the claim James Lilley makes himself: that he was nothing more than a pawn. Lilley’s detailed memoir, China Hands, leaves no doubt about his active role in creating and implementing American policy in Asia, and offers real insights and insiders’ information about many of the most important and tumultuous events of the second half of the century.

Lilley’s career began when he joined the CIA after graduating from Yale in 1951, recruited by a professor because he had grown up in China during the 1930s, where his father worked for Standard Oil. After initial training he was sent to Japan and started his first assignment: the arduous task of trying to extract information from China after the Communist takeover. Never one to gloss over his failures, Lilley reveals the difficulty of gathering intelligence from the closed country, including the complete disappearance of several operatives dropped secretly into Manchuria.

During the Vietnam War, the fight against Communism continued as Lilley worked to prevent the Viet Cong from infiltrating the south through neighboring Laos, where he was stationed. This assignment was full of the type of espionage work found more frequently in spy novels than in reality, and Lilley, to his credit, is quick to dispel any lingering doubts about whether or not the U.S. was also deeply involved in Laos and Cambodia.

Lilley returned to China after official U.S. recognition in 1972, openly identified and accepted as an intelligence officer by Beijing; Mao had given personal approval for the assignment to Kissinger. Lilley would remain there for two more years, forming a close friendship with station chief George H.W. Bush. In 1977, he would accompany the future President on a historic visit to Tibet, until then closed to outsiders. Despite Tibetan prisoners’ secretly notifying the Americans that they were being tortured, the trip resulted in the birth of a unique friendship between Bush and Deng Xiaoping.

Lilley’s career turned away from the CIA to more conventional diplomatic posts and he eventually became the first man to serve as head of the American missions in both Beijing and Taiwan. Lilley also served as Ambassador to South Korea, where he experienced his most satisfying achievement (despite being burned in effigy in Seoul before he even arrived): orchestrating the first free elections in that country in December of 1987.

The greatest drama in China Hands occurs during the Tiananmen Square massacre in May of 1989, during Lilley’s tenure as Ambassador to China. His gripping and enlightening account includes lesser-known details such as the indiscriminate firing of automatic weapons by Chinese soldiers into the U.S. Embassy compound and the concealment offered to dissident Fang Lizhi and his wife for many months before they finally escaped to the West.

Through all four decades of his government career, Lilley steadfastly held on to his belief "That the United States and its values were worth fighting for." This is the kind of conviction that intelligence work requires of its front-line "warriors," the same type of clarity of purpose also demanded of infantry soldiers on the ground, which makes them able to kill.

However, China Hands is too smart to sink into a simplistic us-against-them world view. Lilley saw the clear lines between what he was fighting for and what he was fighting against, but he also knew the complexity of the real world. Even as politicians at home expounded on the "Domino Theory" of Communist expansion in Southeast Asia, Lilley understood that Communists were not all the same and were not all under the control of Moscow. He knew how to exploit the differences between such groups as the Soviets, the Chinese, and the Vietnamese, and the U.S. is better for it.

A State Department spokesman once told Lilley that "We have to preserve ambiguity in the interest of clarity," a justification for political doublespeak if there ever was one. Luckily, China Hands provides its clarity the old-fashioned way, with meaningful insight and analysis. By refusing to take the easy road, Lilley’s story is ultimately more than just a political or historical one; it is a human one. More than just a collection of events, this book also details the long saga of the Lilley family’s involvement in Asia, including the shocking suicide of James’s brother Frank as a young man. By showing us real individuals along with the grand flow of history that surrounds them, James Lilley provides a stunning view of American involvement in Asia that no one else could possibly have given.

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