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In Appreciation: CIA “China Hand” Jim Lilley, 1928-2009

The CIA and the nation lost a legendary figure with the death of James R. Lilley on 12 November. During his 25 years with the CIA, Lilley became known as an exceptional intelligence officer.

CIA colleagues remember Lilley for being blunt, outspoken, even brutally frank—arguably just as an intelligence officer should be. For CIA officers—especially leaders of East Asia operations—Lilley was a mentor, a teacher, and an example of an intelligence professional of recognized and respected expertise who rose to the top of his field and beyond it—all for love of his country and out of his lifelong fascination with China.


Using His Background

Born in Qingdao, China, where his father worked for Standard Oil, Lilley spent his childhood immersed in Chinese language and culture. When his family returned to the United States, Lilley worked on being as American as he could and for a time turned his back on his Chinese childhood.

When Lilley entered Yale University in 1947, planning to serve his country overseas, he focused on the major Cold War threat and took Russian, intending not to work on Asian studies. But when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, Lilley changed his mind, deciding that taking advantage of his Chinese experience would be the best way to serve.

One of his professors, a China scholar and CIA talent spotter, asked Lilley, “Have you ever thought of the intelligence business?” He became one of many Yale graduates of the class of 1951 who joined CIA.


A Life of Service

Lilley participated in many operations during his career in East and Southeast Asia and developed a reputation for initiative, imagination, and courage. He also went to school again, attending Columbia and the National War College.

Through his work for the CIA in Asia, Lilley got to know a future CIA director then serving as the top U.S. envoy to the People’s Republic of China, George H.W. Bush.

Lilley capped his intelligence career by serving as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, but greater glory as a “China hand” came after he retired. Vice President Bush recruited Lilley to serve on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff, which led to his selection as head of the U.S. mission in Taiwan.

In his next assignment, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for a year before going to South Korea as ambassador. His subsequent appointment, as ambassador to Beijing, coincided with the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and massacre. Lilley was praised for his reporting on the crisis and for other actions he undertook—including housing a wanted Chinese dissident in the Embassy for a year before the Chinese government agreed to let him leave the country.

Lilley recounts his remarkable career in his memoir China Hands (2004). Many historians agree that it is one of the best books on a life in intelligence, and an insightful treatment both of China and US-China relations.

Jim Lilley was a consummate intelligence practitioner first and foremost, an able and accomplished diplomat who was also a tough customer, and a leading China expert, respected by the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan alike. Professionals like him do not grace our lives often, and he will be missed.


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Posted: Dec 03, 2009 10:52 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:19 PM