James Lilley’s “China Hands” | Commentary

How does the United States exercise its power in Asia, and to what end? The tapestry is vast, but one American with an extraordinary grasp of its many threads is James Lilley. Now in retirement following a decades-long career rising through the CIA and the Department of State, this American spy and diplomat has written a fascinating and highly personal memoir that sheds light on a whole spectrum of critical issues.

Lilley begins China Hands with the story of his youth. He had the unusual fortune of being born (in 1928) in the Chinese coastal city of Tsingtao, on the Yellow Sea. His father was a missionary, but of the commercial and not the Christian sort; after dropping out of Cornell, he had taken a position plying the Yangtze river on a junk, peddling kerosene as a salesman for Standard Oil. James was the youngest of his four children, all born in China; Frank, the first born, whose tragic shadow towers over this memoir, was eight years older.

Frank was young James’s hero, guiding him through the shoals of a colorful childhood in China (with occasional stints in boarding schools in Korea and the U.S.) and serving as a kind of model for how to live. But as war came to ravage Asia in the 1930’s, Frank (who attended Yale and then, through ROTC, became an officer in the U.S. Army) was caught in the grip of a crushing depression. At the close of World War II, stationed near the rubble of Hiroshima by the military, he put a bullet in his head.

The lesson drawn from this shattering event by the young James, now eighteen years old and serving as a private in the army, was both personal and in the largest sense political:

Frank had been a dreamer, pacifist, and philosopher who had felt deeply and who died young. I developed differently, eschewing romanticism and excessive emotion and inclined to deal with facts and forces as they presented themselves. I felt it was important to stay away from disillusionment.

This desire to deal with “facts and forces,” particularly those set in motion by the cold war, led James, like many of the brightest, politically engaged men of his generation, into a career in the fledgling CIA.


Lilley spent the next years in a wide variety of agency postings, almost all of them undercover, in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. For much of this period, Lilley had the primary mission of obtaining information about developments inside the closed world of Communist China, then experiencing, successively, the vast human disasters of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the CIA, then as now, was prone to dysfunction, with a distinctive tendency to devote attention to “process over substance,” focusing more on how intelligence was obtained than on what the intelligence meant.

By the mid-70’s, after two decades of debriefing travelers, running agents, and engaging in other forms of derring-do, sometimes paramilitary in nature, Lilley had become one of the U.S. government’s most seasoned Asia specialists. Returning to headquarters in Virginia for a spell, he became acquainted with George H. W. Bush, who had been named to run the CIA by President Gerald Ford. Lilley evidently made an impression; a decade later, with Bush serving as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, he was awarded his first ambassadorship, arriving in South Korea just as that country was entering a critical pass.

Chun Doo Hwan, a South Korean army general who had seized power in 1979 in a coup d’etat, was ruling in draconian fashion, massacring hundreds of students in the southern city of Kwangju and imprisoning the dissident leader Kim Dae Jung. In 1987, shortly after Lilley presented his credentials in Seoul, Chun’s term in office was scheduled to draw to a close. Yet the military strongman was maneuvering to stay on, provoking hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators to gather in the streets of the capital. Similar protests began to unfold throughout the peninsula; the demonstrators were no longer students, as in Kwangju, but a cross-section of the emerging middle class. The question on everyone’s mind was: would Chun declare martial law and follow it with an even bloodier repetition of 1979?

In the middle of these dramatic events, the Reagan administration stepped in. Reagan had been an unapologetic supporter of Chun’s regime as a bulwark against the aggressive Communist North, and Chun had been among the first foreign leaders invited to the White House following his election in 1980. Lilley himself courted Chun assiduously, opting controversially to attend a convention of the ruling Democratic Justice party that 60 other ambassadors were boycotting.

But when push came to shove, it was precisely this willingness to dirty his hands by embracing a friendly dictator that gave Lilley the necessary modicum of influence. As Chun clung to power, a letter from Reagan, hand-delivered by Lilley and accompanied by an unambiguous articulation of the U.S. position, had the desired effect. That very afternoon, Chun announced he would not impose martial law. Less than two weeks later, he astonished the world by accepting all of the opposition’s demands, including direct election of the president and the release of Kim Dae Jung. With the U.S. serving as midwife, South Korean democracy, stable and today functioning smoothly for two decades, was born.


In Lilley’s next posting, as ambassador to Beijing, a similar drama was set to play out on a much grander scale, but with very different results. In the most riveting chapters of this memoir, Lilley recounts the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Unlike in South Korea, the American embassy’s role was primarily that of an observer. But as Lilley acknowledges, a question mark still dangles hauntingly over this entire episode: did the Bush administration miss a chance, however slim, to intervene and avert the tragedy?

Lilley had assumed his ambassadorial post on May 2, when things were already hot; “stepping on a volcano” was how the New York Times described his arrival. At first he and his staff were slow to grasp the significance of the demonstrations taking place in Beijing’s central plaza. A visit by Mikhail Gorbachev on May 15 was perceived by Washington in classic cold-war terms, as a moment to bolster ties with the Chinese military in order to offset any potential inroads by the Russian bear.

But as the demonstrations mushroomed, all such reasoning was dropped. The embassy mobilized its resources to gather information, both about the character of the student movement and about developments inside the highest echelons of the Communist regime. With a talented staff reporting to him from across Beijing, and from U.S. consulates in other cities, Lilley was able to observe the successive efforts of the military to crush the students, beginning with the soft crackdown sardonically called “partial martial” and culminating in the terrible day of June 4 when the People’s Liberation Army sprayed machine gun fire on unarmed civilians to clear the square.

As the Chinese moved from push to shove to shooting, Lilley was dispatching cables to Washington, describing events in close detail and offering his best predictions of what was likely to happen next. On May 21, he forecast that a “confrontation resulting in bloodshed is probable.” Five days later, he cabled that bloodshed was no longer probable but “imminent.”

Yet the policymakers in Washington saw things differently. If China Hands offers a window into how an American embassy operates in the midst of an international firestorm, it also offers a revealing glimpse into the larger machinery of U.S. foreign-policy making, especially as that machinery was being run by such pragmatists as Brent Scowcroft (National Security Adviser), James Baker (Secretary of State), and George Bush himself (now President, and having serious difficulty articulating a “vision thing”).

President Bush, writes Lilley, had enjoyed a fifteen-year “personal relationship” with the Chinese party chief Deng Xiaoping, and fixedly perceived him as “a leader who sought reform and opening up and would avoid harming U.S.-China relations.” Both Bush and the men beneath him were “under the delusion that the standoff between the students and the government would have a peaceful outcome.” Thus, when the Chinese military swung into action on June 4, the White House was caught unawares.

Returning to Washington for consultations after the massacre, Lilley was obliquely rebuked by Bush for failing to warn him of the impending crackdown. “I got a strange sense,” writes Lilley, “that the President was asking me to justify myself as if I had notbeen writing cables warning of a bloody suppression of the student movement.” The mystery was cleared up soon enough: since Lilley had been tagged an “alarmist” by Baker’s team at State, his on-the-money cables were left to languish at lower rungs of the bureaucracy, never making it to the President’s desk.

This failure was not lacking in consequence. Fumbling in the dark, directed only by their own illusions, the unrealistic realists running U.S. foreign policy failed to exercise even the highly circumscribed influence on the Chinese leadership they might have otherwise commanded. Though Lilley acknowledges that diplomatic intervention by Washington held only a faint possibility of averting the bloodbath, the administration never even tried. In particular, the Bush team neglected to consider the single avenue open to it: sending an emissary of stature like Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon to warn the Chinese leadership of “serious repercussions from a crackdown.”


The strength of China Hands lies in its bird’s-eye view of American foreign policy at the operational level. For a portrait of exactly what CIA agents were up to in Asia in the successive battles of the cold war, and for a view of exactly what American embassies do in the midst of a crisis, few accounts rival Lilley’s.

The weakness of China Hands is equally pronounced: Lilley never steps back and tells us precisely what one can learn from his account of “nine decades of adventure, espionage, and diplomacy in Asia.” This is a large lacuna, for many unexplored themes lurk just beneath the surface of his engrossing narrative.

Perhaps the most significant has to do with the abiding tension in U.S. foreign policy between the exercise of power and the promotion of ideals. That tension is on display throughout Lilley’s memoir, and nowhere more so than in his “tale of two cities”—Seoul and Beijing. As an ambassador in these two major Asian capitals, and as a decades-long employee of the clandestine arm of the government, Lilley had prolonged exposure to the conflicting considerations that shape American policy, from advancing commercial interests, to enhancing military security, to promoting universal values.

Facing this mix, Lilley emerges as a proponent and a practitioner of a realistic brand of realism, hard-nosed in its way but nevertheless distinct from the pinched vision of his main taskmasters in Washington. In one fashion or another, at virtually every moment of his career, whether countering Communism in China and Vietnam or fostering democratic norms in Taiwan and Korea, Lilley upheld the universal truths on which our country was founded as an essential element in the balance of competing American objectives.

This, in the end, may be the lesson Lilley drew so painfully from the negative example of his brother: even the pursuit of the loftiest goals requires a serious engagement with “facts and forces,” and a no less serious acknowledgement that “disillusionment” can come in more than one form.

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